Friday, November 30, 2007

Questions Mothers Hate

It's Friday. The would-be substantive post struggling to take shape in my foggy brain regarding the Teddy Bear Teacher situation in Khartoum and taking the angle that perhaps we should stop giving Sudan a couple billion dollars a year in U.S. aid monies considering that all that money will buy them a lot of the rope they need to...well, you see where this is going, right?...refuses to congeal.

The weather may have something to do with it, of course; it's gloomy and chilly here, and the sky is one of those dirty-gray colors that make you wish you could send your guardian angel skyward with a really big bottle of Windex. And, like I said before, it's Friday. And a conversation I was having earlier with a great friend of mine won't stop nagging me to expand on it. Sudan will have to wait.

My friend and I were talking on the phone when one of my girls came to ask me a question. Could she have orange juice with her lunch? I said yes; and one of the other girls piped up, "Can I have some, too?"

Not ten minutes later, the same thing. DD #1: "Can I have a fruit bar?"
Following her into the room came DD #3: "Can I have one, too?"

Stifling the urge to answer this question the way every mother wants to answer it, I simply said "yes." Of course, what every mother wants to say is: "When in your entire life, excepting only those circumstances involving illness and an invalid diet, have I EVER allowed only ONE of you to have a certain type of food or beverage? When have I EVER said, 'Oh, no, only your sister can have that,'??? So why do you all think that EACH of you has to ask permission for the SAME THING???"

And that got me thinking about all of those other questions I hate to be asked. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

1. "What's for dinner, Mom?" To be fair, I don't mind this question if it is asked as I am standing in the kitchen actually cooking dinner. I don't like being asked it at 1:30 p.m. when the remains of lunch are still lurking in the kitchen, I definitely don't like being asked it immediately after breakfast, and I hate being asked it more than once by the same child on the same day when it is blatantly obvious that she's simply hoping I've repented my previous choice of menu.

2. "Do I have to do [fill in the blank; laundry, math homework, etc.]?" Kiddo, you know the answer already, don't you? Hoping I was just kidding about what I just this minute told you to go and do is not a wise game to play; yes, you have to.

3. "Why can't [insert sibling name] help you, instead?" Trust me, if I'm asking for help with a big job, I'll call everybody in. But if you're sitting less than two feet away from me enjoying a comic book and I need someone to put a new bag into the trash because I forgot earlier and now have a handful of eggshells to dispose of, this question is not going to be well received.

4. "Do we have to go shopping today?" In a couple of years when your older sister is old enough that mom and dad can occasionally do the Costco run while DD#1 remains in charge at home, the choice to accompany us or not may be yours. Until then, yes, so get those shoes on, grab a jacket, and grumble at your own risk.

5. "Can't we skip [fill in blank; anything from afternoon rest time to half the math problems on the page]?" If for some odd or unusual reason (such as the math textbook writer suddenly thinking that eighty problems are doable in a single lesson or the fact that afternoon rest time would interfere with taking advantage of a gorgeous seventy-degree day) I decide to dispense with any of our usual routines, you'll be the first to know. Trust me. So it's not necessary to ask (beg, whine, cajole, bargain, or negotiate). Unless otherwise noted it's business as usual.

6. "Awww. Do we have to go to bed?" Do you really need to ask this one? Still? After being my children (some of you, anyway) for at least a decade? C'mon, now. I let you stay up late on occasion, but even then, when I say it's bedtime, it's bedtime. Deal?

Anyone want to add to the list?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lion and the Unicorn

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown

The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.

Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;

Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.
(Nursery rhyme)



I apologize to my British readers for using this very British nursery rhyme, and the political realities which it initially symbolized, in the discussion of a couple of decidedly American politicians. But as I read this, I couldn't help but think of the rhyme, and why it seems oddly fitting for a discussion about Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, and the current situation involving the 2008 Republican presidential candidates.

Let's face it, conservatives. This has to be one of the most lackluster field of Republican presidential hopefuls we've ever had. From the earliest days of the campaign it has been hard to muster much enthusiasm or support for the men running, and as the campaign has worn on that task has become almost Herculean. This is especially true when you consider the two frontrunners: Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Whatever emotions Giuliani inspires in me, enthusiasm isn't one of them; as for Romney, his mixed record over the years on gay marriage, particularly as the governor of Massachusetts during the aftermath of the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision, doesn't inspire me with any confidence in his ability to handle the battle over gay marriage that looms on the horizon.

The two men leading the pack don't seem like leaders; they seem rather like sheep. Bleating away at each other, butting horns over relatively small discrepancies in each other's positions, running in fear from any hard questions while never missing an opportunity to repeat their scripted lines from the safety of their campaign files--they don't really cause a stir of any emotion other than a sense of ennui and a vaguely unpleasant taste in the mouth, do they?

At a buffet of relatively uninspiring foods, a simple unassuming dish of fresh fruit can catch the eye with a burst of color and a vivid liveliness that almost causes you to overlook the brown spots on the banana, or the under-ripeness of the peach. At a shoe store that has sold out of your size in three-quarters of the shoes you've looked for, a shoe from the remaining quarter may tempt you to buy, even though it's not what you had hoped to find; it's just all that's there.

Against the backdrop of Giuliani and Romney, Thompson and McCain, Huckabee seems almost like a lion, confident, humorous, artfully good-natured, taking no more notice of the constant barb-trading of the two frontrunners than the king of the jungle would take of a squabble between chimpanzees. His personal commitment to change is evident in the fact of his victory over the battle of the bulge; his thoughtful consideration of issues or positions that the other candidates have rejected as "Democratic" when they're actually the sorts of issues that could just as easily be Christian sets him apart from the flock. Whether he would garner any notice at all among candidates less predictable and dull as most of the ones against whom he is contending is debatable, of course; whether he'd actually be a candidate worth supporting is a question that many of us have yet to resolve to our own satisfactions. In point of fact, Huckabee may be more akin to a house cat that thinks it's a lion than an actual lion; but at least he's not a sheep.

And if Huckabee is the lion of the nursery rhyme, there's no question that Paul is the unicorn: mythical, unbelievable, hard to grasp, capturing the imagination more than the mind, but oddly appealing none the less. When I realize, for instance, that this former O.B. doctor has led the fight to let Americans continue to use vitamins and other health supplements without fearing burdensome government restrictions and has supported legislation guaranteeing the right of Americans to use alternative medicine, I want to stand up and cheer; and when I further read these words of the candidate: "
As an OB/GYN doctor, I’ve delivered over 4,000 babies. That experience has made me an unshakable foe of abortion..." I have to wonder why the National Right to Life Committee decided to give their endorsement to Fred Thompson, instead. The obvious answer is because no one thinks that Ron Paul can win, but it's hard to remember that, just as it's hard to remember when you do encounter a unicorn that they aren't, in fact, real.

It's all too likely that one of the sheep will end up with the nomination, and feel triumphant about it in that quintessentially Republican sheepish kind of way. But lions and unicorns sometimes influence things just by their presence, and if a sheep should roar about something, or start believing on occasion that perhaps some problem in Washington can actually be solved, Huckabee and Paul will have done better for the Republican party than any of the sheep.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cultural Decay On Parade

There are many reasons why I no longer subscribe to a newspaper. Online accessibility of major newspapers, the fact that internet news doesn't pile up and moulder in the recycling bin at a rate that boggles the mind, and the fact that you don't get newsprint all over your hands while reading the online version of the New York Times are among the major reasons why we gave up buying a subscription to our local paper.

But a week or so ago, my husband picked up a copy of the Sunday paper, and as I sorted through it to throw away the sections we didn't want I came across another reason why I won't subscribe to a newspaper anymore.

The Parade Magazine insert in the Sunday paper has always been a waste of perfectly good ink and paper, of course. But it has gotten so much worse over the years that its decline almost seems like a cultural indicator. I can remember a time when, as a teenager, I could flip through the Parade section, reading about a celebrity or enjoying a cartoon. The edition that wound up in my house the other day, though, wouldn't be an appropriate section to give a teenager, at least not a Christian one; the celebrity gossip, articles, and general content betray the magazine's absorption of our sex-saturated culture and its display of consumerism as if it were a virtue.

That, in itself, isn't so surprising, of course. We encounter such examples of fetid cultural rot every day; getting through the checkout line at the grocery store without having early readers pick up disgusting words or zero in on salacious imagery is a Sisyphean labor, and as our children age the opportunities to encounter the inane, immodest, and inappropriate world of celebrity-inspired culture only grows. But the inclusion of a token of that world into something once as relatively innocuous as the Sunday paper represents an intrusion into the home itself, a sort of "all or nothing" proposition wherein one either accepts the filth along with the front page news, sports section, and stock reports, or bypasses the whole thing altogether.

It may be argued that curious children might see too much inappropriate material in the rest of the paper, not excluding the front page section itself; but the newspaper is unwieldy and difficult to handle for a small child, who often must spread even the section somewhat aimed at him, the comics, out on the floor or fold it into smaller squares to read it. The absence of very many pictures and the dry tone of the front page section are, in some ways, a built-in protection against the curiosity of the young, who are unlikely to wade far enough in to an account of a murder, for instance, to read the violent or seamy details.

That can't be said for the Parade Magazine, of course. Its small size, abundant illustration, and small blocks of text, not to mention the comics page included within it, are all going to seem more interesting to a young reader than the rest of the newspaper. Add to that the fact that some of the celebrities pictured may even be familiar to the children and you have the very real likelihood that children may pick this section up and read it, cover to cover.

And what would they have learned from the example that ended up in my house recently?

That celebrities often have "partners" instead of husbands or wives, that women who can't have babies and end up using surrogates may become best friends online, and that a nationally known comedian not only loves technology and encourages everyone to have as much of it as they can buy, but compares his iPhone experience to being like having [insert reproductive word here] for the first time. And that's just for starters.

Newspaper publishers of America, if you want people to subscribe to your product, quit including this trashy sewer rag in the Sunday paper. The cultural decay our families have to fight against is draining enough; we really don't need you to put it on parade.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You Get What You Pay For?

Years ago, I recall hearing about a conversation between two people on the subject of children's sandals. One person had been lamenting the fact that the shoes she had purchased for a child had come apart relatively quickly. The other, learning that she'd bought the shoes at a discount store, replied, "You get what you pay for."

When the conversation was repeated to me I found it terribly strange. As someone who had tried unsuccessfully to find children's sandals that were not made in China, I knew that the high-end brands and the department store displays all contained sandals made in China, quite possibly manufactured in the same factory where the supposedly "inferior" discount store brand was made. So what made the expensive ones any better? Did the workers get an additional five cents an hour tacked on to their tiny wages when they made the department store shoes? Did that create the incentive for them to sew more diligently? Highly doubtful, in my view--I thought then that the only difference was likely to be the label sewn into the pricey toddler sandal, and I still think so.

Apparently, quite a lot of Americans agree with me.

Though the post-Thanksgiving sales figures have seemed strong, there's no denying that discount stores are doing better than high-end retailers. While I'm sure there are lots of reasons for this, at least one of them has to be that there's no longer any gift-giving stigma associated with giving someone a gift from Wal-Mart or Target, especially if it's an electronic item that retails for more elsewhere. The gift recipient is no longer all that likely to feel slighted if you present her with a toaster from a discount store instead of purchasing the exact same toaster for far more money at a pricey snobby department store. When everything is made in a third-world country, all of it cheaply, and all of it by people who are making less than a dollar or two an hour for their work, it's really no longer the case that you get what you pay for.

Consider the iPod, for instance. After stories broke last year about slave labor conditions inside an iPod factory in China, Apple investigated, promised to crack down on the abuses, and make sure that "only" sixty hours of work a week would be permitted to its employees, many of whom are girls ages sixteen and up. The sixty-hour work week can be set aside during the Christmas rush, of course; and whether the usual approximate wage of sixty dollars a month would be augmented during the overtime periods is anybody's guess. Since the iPods range in price from the $79 Shuffle to the $299 model, it would take more than one month of sixty hour work weeks for an iPod factory employee to earn enough money to purchase even the cheapest model of music player they are building.

Do we get what we pay for? Is the iPod worth the price?

That's just one example, of course. There are factories in Malaysia and Mexico, in India and Indonesia, operating on much the same principle: long hours, low pay. Their workers make high-end retail clothing brands, expensive shoes, jewelry that sells for more than the employees make in a year; they make this year's hot Christmas toy and next year's hot fashion trend. They rarely have a day off; some aren't allowed visitors from outside the factory "compound," and some are charged room and board from their slim wages, just to live on the company premises, a "convenience" that works more to the advantage of the company than the advantage of the worker.

We don't talk about this a lot, in America. We don't really know what to say. We've come to rely on this state of things, and even those of us who are committed to reducing our reliance on these consumer goods are uneasily aware of how many of them we own and use on a daily basis.

In many senses, the situation of high-cost goods being produced at the cheapest possible labor cost is the price of globalism.

And in globalism, as in all else, eventually, you do get what you pay for.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Liturgical Tradition and Candles

As you can see from the top left corner of this blog, the kind and gracious hostess at Divine Mercy has awarded me her Candle Award for December. I so much appreciate the faithful witness, bright spirit, and generous good nature Marilena displays on a daily basis!

I was actually thinking about candles in context with something else, and this award gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss it.

I recently participated in a discussion on another blog where the topic of conversation involved the TLM and the Novus Ordo Mass. Although regular readers of this blog will know that I generally prefer the Novus Ordo, I would love to be able to attend the N.O. in Latin on a regular basis; at the very least the vernacular liturgy should strive toward the same dignity and reverence that is visible in the TLM, in my opinion.

You would think that the notion of reverence and dignity in the liturgy would not cause any contention among Catholics, but you'd be wrong. There's nothing like expressing an opinion, however mildly, that there really is a "right" and a "wrong" approach to liturgy to bring out the hostility among a segment of Catholics who seem to think that any such idea is not only in direct opposition to the spirit of Vatican II, but who find it characteristic of a snobby approach to worship, a presumptuous attitude that claims to know what God really wants of us, and an altogether uncharitable view that doesn't really care if Latin hymns and incense drive out not only the prevailing populist liturgical culture, but also all of those Catholics who would feel hurt and excluded by a too-strong return to liturgical tradition.

All of that old art, architecture, music, etc., was fine for its time, some of them are wont to say, but modern times demand modern innovations. We don't want the Church to stagnate, or to create the false impression that it takes Catholics five hundred years to decide if new things are good and worthy of being included in our sacred liturgies. To place such restrictions on modernity is indicative of a suspicious prejudice against what is new, a prejudice that does the Church no favors, and makes it much harder for people, especially young people, to connect with faith and worship.

I've discovered that trying to argue this issue on the basis of the importance of what liturgy is, what worship is, how we need to be connected with the Church's rich history and traditions, and so on, doesn't seem to do all that much. And that's when I started thinking about candles.

We use candles at Mass to represent Christ, our Light. Despite the fact that the modern age permits us to use a safer, easier, and much more effective means of illumination, we still use candles. No one ever suggests that the electric lights in the Church are an adequate replacement for the candles; no one (at least not that I know of) has ever seriously suggested replacing the Easter candle with a good quality flashlight, or an electric light post. At infant baptisms the parents and godparents are still handed a candle as part of the ritual, though there's plenty of light overhead and the candle is wholly useless from a practical standpoint; we light candles in churches (unless local fire codes prohibit this) when we pray for the poor souls or ask for help in some area of our life, even though the notion that the candle somehow affects the prayer is not at all what we believe. At the Easter Vigil Mass candles take over the whole job of lighting for a brief time, though the electric lights still function properly; there are rules governing the use and lighting of candles at Mass, and no properly educated Catholic priest allows a "unity candle" to be used at a wedding ceremony, because the symbolism of the candle doesn't permit such a usage.

Are candles really relevant to our modern lives? Aren't they, really, just a stubborn clinging to an ancient and meaningless tradition, considering all of the talk about seeing Christ in the assembly, in each other? Don't candles really hearken back to old dead ritual, considering that there's no use for them at all in the modern world? Shouldn't we replace the candles with a more relevant and up-to-date source of lighting? In fact, haven't we? After all, no one even buys candles any more, do they?

Oh, but they do.

Why do modern people, even outside of the Mass, still use these antiquated and outmoded things? Why do so many people purchase them annually, either for themselves or to give as gifts? Haven't we moved past all of our tendencies to cling to tradition? What possible reason could a modern person in a modern home have to buy or use a candle?

There are lots of reasons, of course, ranging from aromatherapy and home decoration to keeping emergency supplies on hand, with every degree of romance and practicality in between. But merely to state such things is to beg the question, or at least the deeper question: why do we associate candles with things like nice homes, romantic interludes, and even emergency preparedness, when candles are no longer strictly necessary for any of those things?

I have a feeling it's because at least at some level we still associate fire and light. The incandescent bulb, or the fluorescent one, good in themselves, have not been around long enough for us to associate with them such things as safety, warmth, passion, coziness, cheer or welcome. We may not consciously think of these things when we light a candle to set a mood or create a pleasant atmosphere, but the reason we choose to do that in itself shows how deeply we connect the "ritual" act of lighting a candle with these desired results.

At Mass, the profane "ritual" of lighting a candle for mundane or earthly use becomes the sacred ritual of lighting candles in anticipation of Christ's Real Presence on the altar; the earthly associations we draw around the use of a candle are transcended and given a sacramental quality, as something ancient and lasting becomes inextricably bound up with something eternal.

And if this is true for something as simple as a candle, how much more is it true for the cadence of ancient words, the soft rhythm of ancient music, the soaring majesty of ancient and venerable cathedrals, the glittering gems of ancient stained glass, and the whole rich patrimony of our ancient liturgical heritage?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Loveliness of Pancakes

I'm in the middle of making some pancakes, so you'll forgive me if I...ooops, hold on a sec.

There. Flipped! (The pancakes, not me.)

I could tell you that they're blueberry pancakes from a special highly-coveted family recipe, but that would be a lie (all but the blueberry part) and then I'd have to go to confession.

They're a mix. Or, er, they were a mix. Now they're cooking up nicely into little fluffy...hang on.

Okay.

Pancakes for dinner are not exactly common around here, not because it's not a perfectly wonderful idea, but because I'm seldom organized enough to get started cooking them early enough on a Friday night, and because I'd rather make the homemade ones, which take a little longer to do.

But a while ago my girls begged for the blueberry mix in the store; I thought, why not? So I...excuse me.

So I bought the mix, and we used half of it, and I forgot about the other half.

Which is perfect, tonight, because having enjoyed some Thanksgiving leftovers at lunch (my mom remembers being dispensed from the meatless Friday obligation for the day after Thanksgiving; I suggested different penances my girls could do, instead) we needed a little dinner, but not a lot of dinner, because we ate the lunch late and are still a little full from all of yesterday's feasting...

Sorry about that. Almost done; the last two pancakes are in the pan.

I went into the kitchen, trying to decide what to make. Bean tacos? Too filling, and too spicy after all the delicious food we've been eating. English muffin pizzas? Nah; I'm out of mozzarella. Spaghetti? No. Just...no. Spaghetti may be many things, but it's not a light supper.

And then I found it. That little box, half full of blueberry pancake mix, that I...

...flip...

...forgot all about.

And as the last two pancakes finish up in the pan, I can't help but think about how often God's blessings are just like that. Something needed, unknown, forgotten--but there, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike our notice and ask, hey, what about me?

What about pancakes for dinner?

Yaaaayyyyyyy!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Counting My Blessings

I just got back from a lovely Thanksgiving Day spent with relatives who pulled out all the stops: food, fellowship, joy--it was a beautiful day. (And if you're reading this, thank you again--for everything!!)

There's no way I could possibly list all of the things in my life that I'm thankful for, but here are a few of them:

--God, His Divine Providence, and the gift of my Catholic faith.

--My family: husband, children, extended family members, for all they are and do in my life, for the millions of ways in which they put up with me, for our close connections and deep friendships with each other.

--My country. True, politically speaking I can't ignore the clouds on the horizon, but to be an American is to be a citizen of the land of the free. I'm grateful to each and every person serving in our Armed Forces today, too, for keeping it that way.

--The people in my life: friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners, those who read my writings, and even the strangers I encounter who by spontaneous kindness remind me of how we are to be to each other in this all too short earthly life.

--And a few other things: opportunities I've been given, challenges that have occurred and been weathered, dreams that have impossibly come true, moments small and special and large and grand, and all the things in the last year that have made my soul richer and my spirit stronger.

Heavenly Father, You in your abundant goodness have filled my soul with happiness and my heart with love. Grant that I may offer You a heart full of humble gratitude, perseverance in trials, and joy in overcoming them; let me serve You in any way it pleases You, but especially by living out my vocation as You would have me live it. Thank You for the many graces and gifts You have given me; may I use them for Your glory today and always. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Rosary Meditation (by a Guest Blogger!)

No potluck post today; instead I wanted to share with you a lovely rosary meditation that Freddy sent to me this week. I've been encouraging her to write more often; Freddy is a talented writer, a veteran homeschooling mom whose seven boys range from high school age all the way down to adorable pumpkin, and she has lots of homeschooling mom wisdom to share. Maybe one of these days she'll let me help her start a blog of her own! But for now, I'm pleased to be able to share some of her writing with all of you.

Falling Into the Rosary

--by Freddy

I can confess that I haven’t always been a big fan of the Rosary. This is a big deal, because I’m a cradle Catholic. For a convert, I can imagine that the Rosary might be a difficult devotion with which to come to terms – all those repetitive prayers and all, although I’ve known converts who were actually attracted to the Church because of the Rosary. But for the average cradle Catholic, actually admitting that you’re not crazy about the Rosary is almost heresy, or at least it seemed so to me. I mean, it’s the Rosary, you’re Catholic, it’s what you do, right? And it’s what I did. Doing dishes, folding laundry, riding in the car, in the dorm at college, rocking babies, listening to thunder, and before Mass we said the Rosary. And while I can’t say I hated it, I often felt guilty because I found it impossible to pray – really pray, instead of just say – the Rosary. It was kind of like driving stick shift; there were just too many things to concentrate on at once, and too many distractions. First there are the words of the prayer – you’ve got to think about what you are saying, then you’ve got to remember which mystery you’re praying and meditate on that, and then the intentions – are you offering up each decade separately or is the whole rosary for one biggie? Then there are the distractions – the inevitable toddlers, the whispered arguments, the one who loses his place. I’ll bet even a group of identical quintuplets couldn’t say the Rosary at the same pace!

Then I actually pledged to say the Rosary every day. There were mitigating circumstances. Someone very dear needed prayers, and a good friend made a card and asked everyone to give prayers as gifts, writing what we’d do on the card. Faced with so many beautiful devotions, I chose the old Catholic stand-by, the Rosary. And a strange thing happened. It took time, but what was nearly a grind and almost an onerous chore became by imperceptible degrees a draw, a comfort, even a need. I began to fall into the pattern of the mysteries, the cadence of the prayer. I began to see how the Rosary “worked,” for lack of a better term, and to understand what draws so many, saints and ordinary Catholics to this humble yet profound prayer. Part of this success came from taking time to pray alone, quietly. Too often as a Mom I tend more closely to my children’s spiritual gardens and let weeds grow in my own. I forgot that Mommy-prayer-time should be just more than begging our family’s Guardian Angels for help! Another factor was – let’s face it – a certain spiritual maturity. I needed to know more than just my “Hail Marys” I needed to grow in my faith, study the Bible, and learn from the saints in order to make the kind of prayer my heart longed for. (Not that children can’t derive great benefit from their rosaries, just that many children are wiser than I am!) Finally, I needed to learn to love the Rosary for its own sake, instead of just using it as a spiritual begging bowl. As our dear one’s health improved, my prayers became those of thanksgiving, then turned to other matters, and even turned back only to God, for His own.

I may never learn to drive stick shift, but by God’s grace, and His mother’s many prayers, maybe someday I will learn how to pray.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Cry of Perfection

You've seen those commercials, right? The ones for Thanksgiving.

It seems that every time I turn on the television there's another one: a commercial with some unbelievably perky person talking about the many ways you can make Thanksgiving "perfect."

Perfect turkey. Perfect flowers. Perfect dishes or cookware. Even the perfect appliances, because heaven knows you're going to want to re-do your entire kitchen before all of your extended family arrives for the Big Day!

Sorry if that's a little snarky--but that's how these commercials tend to make me feel.

We women are awfully prone to believing in our own inferiorities and insecurities as it is. We scrutinize our figures endlessly in the mirror; we step on scales far more often than we should. We can see dirt in the bathroom before anyone else can; the unexpected ring of the doorbell causes an anxious look around at the clutter we wish we didn't have. We are ready to replace all of the carpet in our house within a year of its installation. We worry all the time that we don't measure up to the other women we know, in some ephemeral but paradoxically measurable way.

The retailers have figured us out, and they target our worries and insecurities all the time. But never, it seems, do things get so blatant as they are when a major holiday like Thanksgiving approaches: the merchants behind the commercials drop all pretense, and begin repeating "Perfect! Perfect! Perfect!" like a frightening tocsin in our all too receptive ears.

Because, of course, behind the message of perfection is a cruel statement of what far too many of us believe to be fact:

You're just not good enough.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Free Time!

Early last week I decided that the girls and I were going to take.the.whole.week off for Thanksgiving. Ordinarily, we only take off Wednesday through Friday, to give us the option of taking more time off for Christmas and to keep us from losing our focus before the end of the year.

But for some reason, this year we really needed the extra break. We've been keeping our noses fairly well to the grindstone since the end of August, and after the sadness of losing our choir director and the extra efforts everyone in the choir has been making to keep things going, I thought it would be nice to have a whole solid week of vacation, a chance to catch our breaths, enjoy a few projects, catch up on my NaNoWriMo novel whose word count has slipped behind again (sigh) and recharge our homeschooling batteries a little.

It helps that the nearby school district is doing the same thing this year. Since all the local children are off from school too, I can send my girls outside for a picnic lunch without worrying about neighbors' comments (or secret calls to truant officers). Of course, since the weather has returned to being inappropriately hot and sunny for November the picnic came to a premature wasp-bothered end (my girls didn't buy the line that at a picnic the bugs aren't a bug, they're a feature) and they ended up waiting until a slightly shadier time of day to return to the yard, armed with water guns. In November. In eighty-degree weather. (My inner Midwesterner is curled up in a ball and sobbing quietly into a flannel handkerchief.)

But the weather forecasters are promising us a cool-to-downright-chilly Thanksgiving Day itself, which will be lovely (there's nothing quite like being too hot to eat roasted turkey on Thanksgiving). My wonderful brother and sister-in-law have invited us to join them for Thanksgiving; there will be abundant food, abundant laughter, abundant cousins, and an abundance of good spirits (no matter how the football games go).

I'm thinking that our new Thanksgiving tradition will be to take the whole week off from school. We live in a state that lets us choose our own school schedule, and I think that it makes sense to enjoy this week with friends and family to the fullest extent possible. That doesn't mean I won't be writing here--I will!--but it does mean that I'm really planning to enjoy this whole week of freedom and opportunity.

If you're going to be traveling, or you won't be checking in until after the holiday, have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Media Template

How on earth did I miss this?

The brilliant minds at Creative Minority Report have created a helpful headline guide for the Pope's upcoming visit to the U.S. I think Patrick Archbold has pretty well nailed it: the national news media is almost certain to use at least one of those headline combinations (quite possibly the one reading "Pope To Visit U.S. Amid Priest Sexual Scandal").

It's funny. It's sad. It's accurate. By holding up this particular mirror to the mainstream media, Patrick Archbold has proved that they have no reflections and are therefore vampires.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating--a little. But honestly, when is the last time you read a story in any secular newspaper dealing with any aspect at all of Catholicism, where one or the other of the elements from the clever CMR post wasn't dragged in completely gratuitously? If a Catholic diocese decided to open the world's largest soup kitchen, for instance, the headline in the New York Times would probably read "Scandal-Rocked Church Opens Soup Kitchen In Effort To Repair Crumbling Image In A Time Of Dwindling Church Attendance" and the article itself would probably direct readers to a companion piece on the editorial pages, in which the ever-predictable Maureen Dowd would opine, "It's Time For Catholic Women To Get Out of the (Soup) Kitchen...(and get behind the altar).

The media template for articles and essays involving the Catholic Church tends to follow a depressingly familiar pattern. To be fair, a nearly-identical template is used whenever Christianity as a whole is discussed, unless the church in question has proved its progressive stance by campaigning for abortion, gay rights, environmentalism, and unilateral disarmament--oops, sorry, that should read "immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq." (I guess I'm still remembering the progressive churches of my childhood.) Such a church, of course, will be written about in a tone of breathless and positive surprise, as if the writer of the piece can hardly believe that there are Christians out there who are almost--well, normal.

It's not all that surprising that that media, by and large, doesn't understand religion, and particularly religions like Catholicism that still insist on the connection between love and sacrifice, that still take the Ten Commandments and the New Testament's expansion of them seriously, that accept the reality that to live as a follower of Christ demands not merely some universal niceness, but the taking up of our own crosses, the constant struggle to put to death the old reality of sin, and the obedience and gratitude which characterize our worship of Almighty God.

These concepts can't really be reduced to sound bites; they don't make for catchy headlines. Rarely do they sell papers. Headlines reading: "Pope to Catholics in America: Yes, We're Still a Hierarchy" or "Pope Reminds Faithful That Jesus Meant What He Said" are going to be greeted with incomprehension in the newsroom and yawns in the marketing department.

So in all probability, the headlines during the papal visit to the United States will read very like the ones conjured up by the fertile imagination of Patrick Archbold at Creative Minority Report. Because when the light of Christ shines forth into the uncomprehending darkness, the darkness tends to write "Light Disrupts Sleep; Environmentalists Worried About Radiation."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Asking For It

There was a time in America's past when a woman who was assaulted by a man had to weigh her fervent desire to see her attacker punished against the unpleasant likelihood that society would view her very negatively merely for having been the victim of such a crime. The loathsome phrase that she was somehow "asking for it" covered all manner of her potential transgressions, from having somehow encouraged the man by her clothing, appearance, or manner to having acquiesced in the behavior, only to cry "rape!" when the deed was done. The victim of rape was often victimized twice: once by the actual attack, and then again by having every shred of her reputation unfairly torn from her by those who were quick to judge her as having been somehow complicit in her own victimization.

Although this attitude is still sometimes to be found in American society, our awareness of the reality of this particular crime, its devastating effects on its victims, and increased sympathy for women who have been the victims of rape have grown considerably over the last century or so. While rape counselors and victims themselves will agree that there are certain risk factors a woman can--and should--avoid (such as being alone with men they barely know, drinking to excess or using illegal drugs, and so on) the actual attack is not a woman's fault, despite any circumstances. Rape is an ugly crime, no matter how it happens.

Which is why Americans should be completely outraged at this.

Look at the facts: a nineteen-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia is being punished with 200 lashes and six months in jail because she was raped! Technically, the punishment is being handed down to her for the crime of being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the attack; it was actually increased because her lawyer went to the media to raise awareness of the situation. The woman's attackers--yes, attackers, plural; there are six of them--have been sentenced to between two and nine years in prison. Her lawyer has had his license to practice law revoked because he tried to challenge the verdict in this case.

In Saudi Arabia a woman can be held criminally responsible for her own rape merely for not following Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam which tries to interpret the Koran literally, and which forbids women to associate with men other than relatives, to drive, and to appear in public without being veiled from head to toe. To the Saudi government, this young victim of a hideous and terrible attack was asking for it--because she got into a car being driven by someone she wasn't related to, a man, naturally, because women in Saudi Arabia aren't allowed to drive cars. That act, to the government of Saudi Arabia, is tantamount to giving men the permission to abuse and mistreat you; and while the men are also being punished for violating public morality standards their initial punishment was a mere one to five years in jail. Even with the new "tougher" punishments for the men the outrageous injustice involved in sentencing a rape victim to be beaten and imprisoned for daring to challenge the idea that she should be punished at all is an offense against every notion of human decency and human kindness.

Instead, the American policy of appeasing Saudi Arabia seems to extend to such matters as pressuring U.S. servicewomen to abide by Wahhabist rules and making sure that only male FAA employees would be on duty when the crown prince visited Crawford, Texas. We seem all too willing to overlook Saudi assaults on human dignity, Saudi incidents involving religious oppression, and Saudi ties to terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

In the fight to make sure that Islamofacism doesn't overwhelm the United States of America, we should remember all these mixed signals we're giving to Saudi Arabia: our appeasement, our willingness to overlook their human rights violations, our tendency to pretend that our two countries' world views aren't as radically different as they are. We should understand that if Saudi-funded terrorism does indeed begin to flourish in our country, that as far as the Saudis are concerned, we were asking for it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Potluck Wednesday, Volume Twelve

Welcome back as "And Sometimes Tea" resumes the Potluck Wednesday posts. There are so many great things to share this week that I really don't have a theme for this week's collection.

First up from Catholic World News is this intriguing article about ecumenical talks between Catholic and Orthodox theologians on the subject of papal primacy. Whether this is a promising sign of hope for the future or nothing much of significance will depend on too many unknown factors to allow for much speculation; but as always, prayer that the Holy Spirit will help our two ancient Churches find a way to heal this very old wound are in order!

Next, AmericanPapist, who has been covering the news of the Pope's upcoming visit to the United States, has some comments about the media's rush to speculate about whether or not Pope Benedict would meet with Rudy Giuliani, if Giuliani were to be the front runner by that time, and so on. I agree with his take, and would only add that the news media's propensity to speculate on webs of what-ifs masquerading as whole cloth never ceases to amaze me.

At least some portion of the Pope's visit will be to New York and Ground Zero, leading to my own breathlessly speculative imitation of the secular media as I ask these two questions: Who will create the cheesiest and least-tasteful papal/9-11 souvenir combo? And how much sales tax will the State of New York manage to collect on these items? As far as the answer to the second question goes, only the Grinch knows for sure.

The blogger who writes The Inn at the End of the World has an interesting follow-up to one of those media stories that usually causes severe eye-rolling, about how public and private schools are pretty much the same. Turns out they were overlooking one particular kind of private school, which did, in fact, show evidence of higher test scores, etc. Just imagine how much result-fixing they would have had to do if Catholic home schools had been included in the study!

Finally, from a talented writer and poet who has yet to set up a blog of her own (hint, hint!) comes the following poem; thanks for sharing it with us, Freddy!

Advent

In the misty, mournful morning

Cold November’s molten drear

At the last leaf’s falling, sighing,

At the dying of the year

Hear the wild goose’s keening,

Calling lonely souls to hear

The song the wind is crying

At the dying of the year



Longing souls who bustle brightly

Through the sudden gloomy ways

Warding off a creeping darkness

Of the dying of the days

Looking homeward, heartfull

To our Father’s house to stay

Welcome us with brightness

At the dying of the day

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Recipe For Disaster

What is it about November, anyway?

I used to blame the weather, back when I lived in places where November weather was--well, Novemberish. Cold, gray, sodden, washing away autumn's cheer in buckets of not-quite-snow that might have been cheerful flurries with a little more ambition and a little less self-pity, the weather in November made it really difficult to think about pleasant Thanksgiving gatherings with family and friends until the day was nearly upon me; or, at least, that's what I used to tell myself.

Now, of course, I live in Texas, and I still blame the weather for my lack of eager anticipation for turkey and trimmings, tradition and taste. It has been in the 80s; it's going to drop--gasp!--into the mid 70s, and who could possibly think of Thanksgiving when the weather is still hovering somewhere between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July?

Sometimes, in my more honest moments, I blame my relative lack of creative cooking skills, and my lifetime membership in the M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S. club, for my somewhat less than enthusiastic approach to Thanksgiving. Let's face it, fellow M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S., this is the quintessential Martha Stewart-esque holiday, the one particular day when our crafty and clever sisters out there really get to shine, as their astonishingly lifelike cream-cheese gourds with homemade turkey-shaped crackers, and too-beautiful-to-eat pumpkin pies with cranberry-lattice crusts, produce gasps of amazement and spontaneous bursts of applause from all of their lucky guests.

I tell myself every year that it's okay to be a little less gifted in these greatly-appreciated arts. I tell myself that even a simpler feast prepared with love is enough, that I don't have to try to compete with those brilliant stars in the domestic-arts firmament. I remind myself that I've taken on other commitments (something which happens like clockwork each November, and that was before I started participating in NaNoWriMo) and made plans to do things which will fill my time for the entire month even without the added effort of attempting to create some sort of Thanksgiving To Remember which is miles beyond my greatest abilities.

And every year, I don't listen.

Every year I try at the last minute to do something to make Thanksgiving beyond the ordinary. Every year I rush out at the eleventh hour for some odd ingredient or other that's necessary for the unusually (and unnecessarily) complicated recipe I've seen in a magazine or read about online. Every year I start fighting the urge to accumulate leafy boughs in autumn colors at the local craft store, even though I haven't the slightest idea how to arrange them, or any vases in which to do it; every year I become increasingly dissatisfied with my table--no, not the creative and beautiful way in which I plan to set it (ha!) but the actual table, which hulks in its secondhand way in my kitchen as if to remind me of my total lack of attention paid to such things during all of the rest of the year. Every year I make elaborate and completely unrealistic plans for how this year, things will be different; every year I think I can juggle all of the commitments I've already made with the rising desire to do Thanksgiving properly, or at least in a reasonable facsimile of properly.

And every year I'm wrong.

Wrong, in that an organic turkey breast doesn't necessarily taste better than a regular one; wrong, in that individual Cornish hens, while pretty and tasty, work out a whole lot better when you've actually remembered to start thawing them sooner than the night before Thanksgiving; wrong, in that those pumpkin pies that didn't seem to be setting up properly for some odd reason or other won't really get any better in the fridge; wrong, in that the homemade pie crust that seemed to be crumbling fast won't hold together any better with the pie filling actually inside it; wrong, in that homemade stuffing that you're cooking in a casserole dish had better be kept covered properly in the oven, if you don't want the top layer of it to be crunchy; wrong, in that...but do I really need to go on?

Letting a foolish pride or ambition get the better of us at the last moment is always a mistake. We are unique, individual creatures, who never please God better than when we're thanking Him with joy for our real talents and sharing them generously with our families, friends, neighbors, and the community as a whole; we're never less pleasing to Him, I think, than when we can't admit with humility and patience that we lack some particular talent, trying instead to overcome our shortcomings with sheer stubbornness and an unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation. Whether the situation at hand involves Thanksgiving dinner or life in general, allowing pride to call the shots is always a recipe for disaster.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Invisible, As Music

THIS world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known.
--Emily Dickinson

I have to confess: I didn't much like Emily Dickinson's poetry when I was younger. I preferred the red meat of Dryden and Pope (especially Pope, which will surprise no one, given the title of this blog) to the seemingly lighter-weight verses penned by the Belle of Amherst. But I've gained some appreciation for Miss Dickinson's writing in my maturer years, not all of which is based on the obvious fact that it is much easier for a homeschooling mother to read one of Miss Dickinson's poems in good time than it is to read a similar work by the eighteenth century poets.

In fact, quite a bit of my appreciation stems from the way that Emily Dickinson's poetry seems to be capable of condensing into a few polished phrases some idea that I've been pondering with indifferent success. The poem above is the latest example of this trick; it's as though Miss Dickinson is saying with calm gentility, "I think this is what you mean," and I realize with sudden wonder that she's exactly correct.

Because what I've been thinking about has to do with death, and the pitying murmurs made by materialists, agnostics, atheists, and others who deny the existence of God without bothering to join an intellectual congregation. Their murmurs voice the notion that we Christians, we believers, we people of faith, have created for ourselves a soothing illusion, and called it eternal life; that we seek comfort in the notion of love that endures beyond the grave, that we ease our sorrows and wipe away our tears on the fabric of a pleasant lie, that says that we will one day be reunited with those whom we have lost.

On the surface, it might be tempting to think that perhaps such people have an insight, that perhaps they understand humanity's desire to explain what is beyond our knowing with some story or fable whose only purpose is to shine a little light, however artificial, into our darkness. But there is nothing like the experience of grief to show just how wrong they are, just how far from reality their ideas stand, just how distant they are from the truth.

For the mother who buries her beloved child finds no comfort, none at all, in the hope of eternal life--not at that moment. Speak to her of heaven, remind her that her child still lives, draw for her an image of her babe clasped in the arms of our Blessed Mother, and her tears will flow the faster for your pains. No hope of heaven, no faith however secure, not even the deepest love of God can ease that hour of sorrow, nor can the light of Christian joy pierce through the clouds of darkness that wrap around her until she has walked a while in the valley of the shadow of death.

The same is true for a husband who must bid an earthly farewell to a dear wife, to siblings who part forever, to other beloved family members who will not see each other again in this life, and even to friends who will greet each other no more until they stand together again in the heavenly city. I am not saying that faith does not provide comfort to those who mourn--but it is hardly the facile, painless comfort that secularists imagine when they attempt to understand our ideas about life after death. It is not the shallow, trivial game of 'pretend' played by spiritualists, for instance, who like to imagine that they can see Uncle Henry standing beside the sideboard, or that they know dear Aunt Clara wanted them to have the diamond broach. Such silliness can hardly be further from the Christian experience of resignation in the face of the death of a loved one; for the Christian the moment of grief is a moment of total surrender to the will of God, no matter what the cost.

It is in this surrender of faith, though, that the light of hope in eternity begins to break the gloom, not as a slow dawning nor a sudden joyful dispersion of the clouds, but as a single ray of piercing illumination that stands in opposition to the heavy weight of grief. Like a fine pure note of sound, the light of hope calls forth in our souls the recognition which transcends both reason and emotion: that we are not made for death, that we will endure.

We do not imagine life after death; we simply know it is there. If the purpose of faith in life after death were merely to bring us comfort in times of sorrow, the belief in eternity would shatter at the first funeral we ever attended, for the belief itself doesn't bring that comfort. Only when we accept, with our bitterest tears, the will of God for us can that light begin to dawn; only when we turn to Him in our grief can He flood our souls with the knowledge that we will all rise from death in His good time.

We have more than His words on which to base this belief; we have His example. Having drunk deeply from the bitterest cup of God's will anyone has ever been handed, He endured death on the Cross, so that He could vanquish death forever. When in our moments of grief we likewise surrender ourselves to God's will, choosing to believe, to hope, and to love even in spite of the grave, our Lord Himself will come to stand with us, and strengthen our faith in the eternal life which He has won for us at so great a cost.

Nothing could be more different from the assumption of the secularist that we choose to believe in eternity to make our losses easier; nothing could be harder than to fix one's gaze on a coffin or a grave, and say, "Yes, Lord. I believe."

Friday, November 9, 2007

We Only Have Today

I want to thank all of you who have been praying for the repose of the soul of our choir director, and for peace and comfort for his family. The funeral will be tomorrow, and I'm sure that your continued prayers are most appreciated.

One of the many talents of this dedicated and humble man was his gift for musical composition. I think the congregation was often completely unaware that the musical settings for some of the responsorial psalms, or a small piece of meditative music, was the handiwork of our director.

One of these little pieces, a song we sang during Lent, is a song the choir will be singing tomorrow. The inspiration for the piece, our director told us, came from this version of the Stations of the Cross; I wish I could share both the words and the music with you, but I can only write the words:

Do with me as you will, O Lord
Grant that I love you always, O Lord
Accept me as your servant, Most Blessed Lord-
For I desire You, and nothing more.

You have made this journey
To die for me with unspeakable love.
Pardon me, God, You go to die for love of me,
For I desire You, and nothing more.

Mother, Queen, overwhelmed with grief
Obtain in prayer for me His love of the Cross
Take me as yours and pray to Him for me,
For I desire Him and nothing more.

I can't help, reading over these words, but wonder how many times I've fallen short of what they express. How many times have I let truly selfish and trivial desires be more important to me than my desire for our Lord? How many times have I cared more for the passing vanities of the world than for the eternal truths? How many times, within minutes of exiting the confessional, for instance, have I slipped right back into grouchiness or impatience or complaining or boasting or laziness or self-centeredness or materialism or any one of dozens of other shortcomings and failings?

Even if we are granted a relatively long life on this earth, there's no getting past the reality that our time here is short. Some people, like our late choir director, manage to be beacons of light, examples of unselfish service to God, His Church, and to all who encounter them. Others of us have a lot more to work on before we'll be capable of half that much unselfishness and dedication, and I definitely count myself among that second group.

But the truth is, we only have today, right now, this hour. We only have one chance in each encounter with every "other" to see them as reflections of Christ instead of that idiot who cut in front of us on the road, or the person who was rude to us in conversation. We can only form the habit of goodness and kindness and generosity one good act, one kind moment, one generous outpouring at a time. We can only change one tiny momentary part of ourselves, that single part that exists in the fleeting "now" of our lives.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: "I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other." (Mere Christianity)

As I consider tomorrow's funeral, I am grateful that I got to know someone who was so obviously working so hard on becoming a heavenly creature, a fit citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom; I am grateful for the many people God has put in my life who are examples of His goodness, examples I hope to learn better to follow.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Politics of Poppycock

Perhaps understandably, my thoughts this week have tended to be on the issues surrounding life and death.

Like most of you, I read this news yesterday; setting aside such questions as whether or not Pat Robertson still has much influence and whether or not he was motivated by his belief that Islamofacism is the biggest threat America will face in the next four years, there remains the reality that the biggest disappointment for conservative voters in this next election has been that most of the candidates running for the GOP nomination are barely even pretending to care about the social issues, issues like abortion, assisted suicide/euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and the like. There's been a growing pressure on conservative voters to decide that none of these issues really have a political solution, anyway, at least not on the federal level, and that therefore we should be willing and even eager to set our passion for these issues aside in favor of more "realistic" issues like terrorism, health care reform, immigration, education and the like.

Mr. Robertson may or may not agree with that position, but his action reflects that attitude, an attitude that is becoming more and more common. It is an attitude that says, in effect, that esoteric questions about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all very well and good for philosophical types, but that Americans need to learn to be practical, to understand that in our diverse and pluralistic society everyone's views of those sorts of things are quite likely to vary, to recognize that we're not supposed to impose our morality on the entire country, and to accept the fact that while we may be able to change people's hearts on questions like abortion or ESCR, we shouldn't be trying to change laws to reflect our own narrow sectarian ideas about when life begins or how much legal protection needs to be available at each stage of development.

This, of course, is utter poppycock.

It's very convenient poppycock, though, because it puts our politicians in the position of being able to make the right sort of vague sympathetic noises in our general direction without having to expend any political capital on these issues, or deliver any sort of tangible results that would enshrine in our laws a commitment to the protection of innocent human life from conception to natural death. It also places these issues completely outside the realm of politics, by branding them as entirely too dreamy and idealistic to find real-world solutions, and too dependent on Christianity's definitions concerning the sanctity and value of human existence to appeal to a broader swath of society.

Of course, looking at abortion or ESCR factually doesn't require any dreaminess or idealism--all that's really required is to understand that every abortion, every destruction of every human embryo, ends the life of an innocent human being at the earliest stages of his or her development. And determining that these lives have intrinsic value doesn't depend on Christian teaching, either--but it does depend that we reject the creeping utilitarianism that only views lives as valuable when those lives meet some arbitrary standard of productivity, a view which ultimately puts the lives of all children, born or not, as well as those of the elderly and the handicapped, at risk of random extermination.

Nevertheless, our politicians have all but abandoned the fight to ensure the protection of innocent human life, and it's hard not to hear the sighs of relief beginning to spread over the GOP, as it realizes that it is one presidential nomination away from being able to drop even the tiny lip service and scattered handfuls of pro-life largess they have been expected to dispense (albeit infrequently and with attention all out of proportion to the size and sincerity of these 'gifts') up to now.

Because the Republican Party is not the Party of Life, not anymore. Few Republicans at the national level care anything at all about making significant changes to the laws concerning abortion, or challenging Roe v. Wade (and Doe v. Bolton, etc.). Most Republicans are uncomfortable with "life issues" and are overeager to avoid giving even the slightest impression that they would end all abortions, or even see that as a desirable political outcome. Our current crop of GOP presidential candidates have, in the main, spotty records on the issue of abortion; and the man often touted as the "most pro-life" candidate supports lifting the restrictions on federal funding of ESCR.

The reality is that the GOP took pro-lifers for granted for so many election cycles that they've become cynical and arrogant, believing that we will line up to vote for whomever they nominate, believing that all they have to do is pretend to have some minimal respect for our issues to gain our full-fledged votes and support. Now, in this election cycle, they're ready to stop pretending. They're ready to admit that they don't care about the unborn; they may even be ready to nominate a pro-abortion candidate who doesn't even find partial-birth abortion worthy of a ban (unless by the time of the election he's decided to pretend in that one area). And they are demonstrating the kind of overweening vanity and confidence that shows how little they respect us, for they expect--they are counting on--our votes, on the grounds that we won't, after all, vote for a Democrat.

Pat Robertson has demonstrated what the Christian conservative voter is supposed to do in the next election: hold his conscience, and vote for Giuliani. The GOP is swaggering around, fully expecting that all of us will be ready to be good little quislings and argue ourselves into some kind of faux-moral position that makes support for Giuliani somehow acceptable to us. Some, of course, will do so.

Not me. If Giuliani really does become the Republican Party's nominee for the election of 2008, I stand ready to abort my support for the GOP. Because, after all, if there's no political solution to the terrible problem of abortion on demand, if the politics of poppycock prevail, I see no need to participate in an election where a vote for either candidate is a vote against the unborn.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Prayer Request

Ordinarily, today's post would be a Potluck Wednesday post. I began writing those when I realized that our fairly new commitment to weekly choir practice on Wednesday nights would make writing a regular blog post extremely difficult.

Being members of the choir has been a wonderful thing for our family, especially the girls. They've enjoyed our director's sense of humor and silly expressions, his exuberant love for music and willingness to explain words like "arpeggio" to them, his enthusiasm for his favorite composer's liturgical works (Johann Sebastian Bach), and his frequent reminders for them to "resonate."

But today, we won't be going to choir practice. No one will. Late yesterday, we received word that our beloved director had suddenly and unexpectedly died sometime during the night on Monday.

He was the sort of person who will be terribly missed by everyone who had the joy of knowing him. His dedicated service to the church for so many years has made him well-known and appreciated in the parish, and his shoes will be very difficult for anyone to fill.

One of the last songs we sang under his direction was the one whose words I copied in this post. Though we were originally going to sing it on All Saints' Day, there wasn't time at that Mass, and so we sang it instead on Friday night at a special Mass to pray for the souls of those parishioners who had died in the past year. As I read over the beautiful words once more I am reminded of the strong and sincere hope of eternal life that permeates our lives as Catholics.

Please join me today in praying for the repose of our director's soul, for peace and comfort for his wife and other family members, and for all of us who mourn the loss of this devout and dedicated man.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How We're All Supposed To Live

I was having an exchange the other day with someone who, like many of us, lives a rather countercultural life, and the notion that those of us who make countercultural choices often have to deal with people in our extended families or communities who don't agree with our choices, and even try to undermine them, came up. It made me stop and think: why is it that choosing to do some things a little differently from the way the rest of America does these things automatically creates an atmosphere ranging from ridicule to open hostility from people who are more conformist in their way of life?

Take homeschooling, for example. Most of us have had the experience of having to explain our families' decisions to teach our children at home to people outside of our immediate families. Some people put up with terrible pressure from extended family members to give up homeschooling and enroll their children in public or private schools, while others find themselves having to justify and defend their choice to homeschool to friends, coworkers, members of their churches or other community groups, and even to total strangers at the grocery store. It never ceases to amaze me that people who don't homeschool can feel so threatened by people who do; after all, no one is saying that everyone must homeschool, and homeschoolers generally try to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to other people's educational choices. So why all of the hostility?

Or consider each family's individual decisions to limit the amount of contact their children have with the popular culture. One family may watch little TV, and another may watch none at all; one family may restrict computer or video game time, while another family may not allow electronic games at all; one family may listen only to classical music, while another allows rock or pop music provided everyone is listening together and Mom or Dad is monitoring the selections. The details may vary, but what each of these families is doing is admitting that there are harmful elements out there in the popular culture, and taking what each sees as the appropriate actions to prevent those harmful elements from having a negative impact on each family--yet people who don't place any restrictions on their children's access to these and other manifestations of the culture find it weird, or threatening, or both, that some parents see danger in the culture and try to keep that danger at bay. No one is saying that every family must make identical choices in our dealings with the culture; however, people get labeled as "strict" and "controlling" for placing any restrictions on their children's exposure to popular culture at all.

Stay-at-home-moms, of course, have been dealing with all-out attacks against their choices for some time now. The relatively peaceful act of a mother deciding to be at home with her own children and to raise them herself is now seen by some as the equivalent of a declaration of war upon the principles of feminism. Some women who chose to work outside the home sometimes seem to need to justify themselves in the presence of stay-at-home-moms, or else they need to tear down the SAHMs, with the belittling presumption that the only women who would choose to stay home with their children are those women who are too unintelligent, too lazy, or too lacking in ambition to do anything else with themselves. I am, of course, not speaking here of the many women like some of my former coworkers who, upon finding out that I was planning to quit my job when my first child was born, wistfully and secretly confided that this life would be their choice, too, but for economic or other circumstances; I am speaking more of the women like one of my female managers who managed to convey her disappointment that I would choose to do such an "unproductive" thing with my life. I still puzzle over why she, with her children long grown, found it unnerving that I would choose to order my life differently than she had done, all those years before.

In pondering all of these things, I started wondering how this turn of events came about. After all, weren't the Baby Boomers, the people now in charge of running most things, all about nonconformity? Weren't they the ones who beat all of those handcrafted drums against the idea of living just like everyone else? Weren't they the ones deriding the "hypocrisy" of the suburbs, the uniformity of the corporate world, the sameness and blandness of much of the American way of life?

Wasn't there a catchphrase about questioning everything? Don't they still, today, from their positions in the perches of power, pay loads of lip service to ideas like "diversity?"

I'm not sure if I've got this figured out, but in reflecting on this apparent contradiction one thing came to mind. The Sixties and its counterculturalism was all about the elevation of individuality, about attacking middle-class Christian bourgeoisie values, about reveling in an anti-material hedonism that was almost self-consciously ironic. Finding yourself, being true to yourself, discovering your own truths, and living in a way that made you happy were the underlying goals of much of the movement.

Today, of course, there's nothing countercultural about any of that. It's how we all are supposed to live. Only instead of flinging handfuls of paint at a canvas, or producing music while under the influence of various unsavory substances, we're supposed to do things another way: we find ourselves (at Pottery Barn or Ikea), we are true to ourselves (by our TiVo selections), we discover our own truths (via sham versions of old religions, church shopping, amateur psychology, or a little clever paganism), and we live in a way that's supposed to make us happy (by various immoral practices, serial divorce, alternative lifestyles and the like). The only principle that matters is the one the children of the Sixties enshrined as their lasting mantra: I am number one; I must come first.

So when some of us reject that notion and the culture it spawned, rediscovering family, faith, and the real freedom which comes from embracing sacrificial love, we are a threat, whether we mean to be or not. No one knows better than the erstwhile hippies just how brief and shallow a cultural revolution can be; no one has more to lose than they do, if future generations reject their one core value and go back to living the way human beings are meant to live: for each other, not for themselves.

Monday, November 5, 2007

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like...Holiday

This past weekend as I ran some errands with my family, I was amazed at the transformation of all of the stores out there.

Last week, they were bedecked in orange and black, with scary monsters, pumpkins, and ghosts everywhere you looked. This week, they are red and green, with holiday lights, holiday trees, holiday ornaments, holiday baking centers, holiday clothes, and, of course, holiday gifts.

Of course, much of this holiday paraphernalia has been visible since the back-t0-school sales ended in early July, but it has been a little more discreet, and a little less ubiquitous. Now, however, with Halloween dissipated like the mist from a haunted graveyard at sunrise, and Thanksgiving looming on the autumn horizon like a frightened Meleagris gallopavo, there's no further reason for the retailers of the United States to show any more restraint; indeed, since this holiday season is their single-biggest money maker of the year, holding off any longer from creating a holiday mood to entice holiday shoppers would be a nearly-suicidal mistake for them to make.

So sometime between last Wednesday and this past weekend, busy elves in stores across this great nation pulled down fake cobwebs and fake gravestones in order to put up huge fake cutouts of holiday cheer, all to get all of those holiday dollars secure in their cash registers before it's too late for them to dream of holiday solvency.

And there will be plenty of holiday shoppers, cutting each other off in holiday traffic, racing to the mall and the discount centers and the post office to get all those holiday packages and holiday cards off in the mail on time...

...For what?

...For "holiday"?

...What "holiday"?

I once wrote to a couple of catalog companies thanking them for their "holiday" catalogs, and then explaining to them that I didn't celebrate "holiday" and didn't, in fact, know what "holiday" was. Oh, I got the standard politically correct response, about how there are lots of holidays celebrated in December, but I have yet to find anyone who is capable of showing me a Jewish "Holiday" tree, or Eid ul-Adha "Holiday" ornaments or creche, or Kwanzaa "Holiday" stockings. The fact of the matter is that none of those other holidays are celebrated anything like the Holiday they won't name; none of them are celebrated with the massive gift exchange that props up our whole retail sector of our economy; none of them involve huge expenditures of hard-earned dollars on such frivolous elements as plastic lighted reindeer for the front lawn or strings of colored light with which to outline every peak of our homes. There's only one Holiday around which we plan and shop and spend, and it's the one Holiday that none of the companies who take our money will ever admit they're helping us celebrate.

Many Christians have become increasingly frustrated with all of this, so much so that some of them are turning each year to a good old-fashioned holiday boycott. The concept is simple: they refuse to spend money with retailers who won't advertise the name of the holiday around which they rally each year, with trees and lights and cards and gifts. It's not a bad idea, as far as it goes; but my feeling is that it doesn't go far enough.

When did Christians accept the secular retail culture's timing of this particular Holiday, after all? When did we agree to celebrate our Holiday beginning the day after Halloween, ramping our efforts into high gear the day after Thanksgiving, and collapsing into a state of sickened exhaustion as we stand in the mile-long return lines on the 26th of December?

When did we stop celebrating the Twelve Days of...? When did we start ignoring Epiphany, moving it to the nearest Sunday for the sake of liturgical convenience? When did we begin to agree that the high point of the whole celebration was not the special and beautiful Mass of the Nativity, but the stacks and stacks of packages under the tree the next morning?

When did the Sundays in Advent become mere countdowns to the frantic and the stressful? When did the lighting of the candles in the family Advent wreath become an activity that unintentionally underscores the swift passage of time, and the sheer amount of Stuff Left to Do Before...When did Advent cease to be a time of prayer and reflection, and become a time filled with grumpiness and greed?

Our Christian friends speak of a war on this particular holiday, but I think for those of us who are Catholics, the real casualty in this war has been Advent, a beautiful liturgical season we can't really afford to do without. Easter, after all, would not be so meaningful to us without the forty days of penitential preparation beforehand, and though Advent's character isn't as strictly penitential as Lent's, it is still meant to be a time of peace, a time to prepare our hearts not only to remember with joyful celebration the birth of the Christ child into the world, but to prepare ourselves to meet Him face to face one day. Though I believe that our Lord always smiles on our real acts of generosity and selflessness, whenever we are generous and selfless in His name, I also think that He knows all too well that these good spirits are far from us at the very season when we should, by our prayers and practices, be preparing ourselves for His coming.

Let the merchants push their wares by playing holiday tunes and filling holiday displays with temptingly discounted holiday gifts and goodies. Let us take a deep breath or two and make our plans, not for their version of "holiday" but for our own special keeping of Advent; and then, with our hearts focused on the greatest Gift we have ever been given, we can truly and sincerely celebrate Christmas.

All twelve days of it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Death Is Not The End

It truly amazes me when I encounter strict materialists in the comment boxes of a blog I often visit. I really can't fathom their beliefs: that everything in the world can be demonstrated by science or discovered empirically, that all supposed spiritual realities exist only as malfunctioning brain chemicals or psychological manifestations, that man has no real past outside of one connected with primordial ooze, and no future beyond one day providing some creatures of the lower order with a little nourishment.

Of course, the irony of their position is that they take it on faith, something they get rather irritated about if someone unkindly mentions it. It's simply not possible to prove a negative. You can't prove that God, the immortal soul, the spirit world, angels, demons, etc. do not have any existence; in fact, you can't prove that material existence is of primary importance, of any importance, or even real in itself. What we perceive as "reality" depends upon our acceptance of the existence of things like time, for instance, which doesn't have a constant reality, as Einstein showed. Their proofs of the material world depend on a system of mathematics which could be radically altered by some new understanding of mathematics at any time; their scientific theories are subject to complete overhaul, given a new discovery which changes the prevailing consensus or provides a whole new perspective. Everything the materialist sees as "proven" or "determined" hangs, in truth, by threads as tenuous and impermanent as the strands of a garden spider's web; a sudden rain, a swift gust of wind, and their view of reality is torn to gossamer shreds.

When this happens, with the plodding determination of those orb-web weavers the materialist will patiently begin weaving the new knowledge into his old understandings, but he will defend his two articles of faith as radically as a fanatic or a Scientologist; those two articles are: 1. There is nothing other than the material universe, and 2. Man will one day understand all there is to understand. He believes in these two dogmas as firmly and fiercely as any religious believer, though it's hard to imagine him being willing to die for them.

Because, for the materialist, death is The End. There is no existence anymore, when the mortal life of the body ceases to be. As gladly and willingly as the materialist will insist that others should die (the unborn, the aged, the handicapped) he will cling to his own life with a desperation that will surprise even him, when the time comes. For, as he believes there is no life beyond the grave, he also believes that when he draws his last breath, he will simply cease to be.

And in his most private moments, the materialist is quite likely to be horrified by this thought. He is likely to be aware how much some force within him rejects it, turns in fear from it, weeps unseen tears over it. As tragic as he finds the deaths of those he loves, his own death looms like the greatest tragedy, clouding every bright horizon, drawing gray lines of terror over every future aspect. It is almost the death of a god, to him; for as he worships only man, incarnate in his own self, he realizes perhaps that his death really is deicide, at least as far as he is concerned.

In those moments, the materialist is closer to the truth than he can know. For that force within him that rejects death, refuses to accept it, runs in fear from it, is the very immortal soul that he refuses to believe he has.

We know, on some instinctive level that stretches back to Eden, that we are not destined for eternal death, for a state of un-being. Even those who die in opposition to God, who lose their souls forever, do not cease to be. The phrase "eternal death" for a Christian refers to the state of permanent exclusion from God's presence, a state almost too awful to contemplate, a reality that moves us to prayer and to a true seeking of God. The materialist's notion of "eternal death" is, possibly, even more horrible than Hell, because it believes that who and what he is, the essence of his own self, will one day not be at all. But even as he contemplates that, his soul stubbornly refuses to believe it, causing the emotions of fear and terror which he may deny, or which he may rationalize as mere brain chemistry, or which he may blame on cultural conditioning.

As Christians we know that the soul is immortal; and it makes sense to us, because there is something about our souls that rejects so strongly the notion not only of our own "loss of being," but also that of those we love who have left us behind on this earth. The mother who weeps for her lost child finds comfort in speaking to him or her in Heaven, and knowing the child can hear her in some mysterious way; the brother who has lost a sister can pray for her soul, and have Masses said to speed her to Heaven; the many who have buried parents or grandparents can do this too, and ask these members of the Church Suffering for their aid and intercession even as they intercede for them and beg God to welcome them into His Presence; the husband who has buried a wife, or the wife who has buried her husband, can pray much and offer sacrifices for these dearly loved ones, and they can also find that their own human fear of the moment of death has largely vanished, since they can hope in Christ to see this one whom they love when they themselves cross the valley of the shadow.

This day, All Souls' Day, and indeed the whole month of November, reminds us that we, too, will know death. But as we befriend the souls in Purgatory, offering prayers, sacrifices, suffering, and good works on their behalf, we gain for ourselves friends in Heaven who will befriend us in our hour of need, along with Mary, who in each "Hail Mary" we address to her hears our plea that she will pray for us at the hour of our death.

The world of the materialist is small, narrow, and depressingly short. It begins with his birth, ends with his death, and is circumscribed by his refusal to entertain the possibility of spiritual reality. But our world is wider, more generous, and eternal. We retain a strong connection with all of those who have lived before us, those who are members of the heavenly court, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, and those who await our prayers in Purgatory, who we remember today and for the rest of the month. They, our beloved dead, have not ceased to be--they are still very much with us, and, God willing, will be among the first to welcome us to Paradise. As we pray for and with them, let us ask them, as soon as they have reached Heaven, to offer their prayers not only for us, but also for those who don't know God at all, particularly the materialists, who need our prayers more than they can possibly imagine.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Our Destination

One of the questions that gets asked in our lives is, "Where are you going?"

It might be asked by someone who wants to know our physical destination: are we going to the living room? Are we traveling on the interstate? Are we lost?

It might be asked by someone trying to help us determine our goals: are we happy in our current career, or with our current life? Are we trying to drop a bad habit, change direction in our job, plan a better future one day at a time?

These are good questions as they relate to our lives. But on All Saints' Day we can remember something else.

All Saints' Day is a reminder that it is heaven that is our ultimate destination. The saints are our true heroes, because they have won what we all seek with all our hearts: eternal salvation, the eternal presence of God.

Those things which put us on the path that will lead us to that destination are the best things in our lives, things we should cultivate and value. They may be church, home, family, prayer, good works, and the practice of virtue.

Those things which deflect us from that path should be examined and counteracted, or removed. They may be the love of money, the idolatry of people or possessions, the distractions of the popular culture, bad habits or companions, and the practice of vice.

On the last day of our lives only one thing will matter: did we know where we were going? Did we arrive safely at our ultimate destination?

Tonight we will be singing these words, from a lovely hymn called the Song of Farewell (based on In Paradisum) by Grayson Warren Brown:

May the angels carry you to paradise.
May the saints and martyrs come to greet you.
May you rest in the arms of Abraham
And know peace in heaven forever.

May the choirs of angels come to welcome you home
And lead you joyfully to heaven.
And may those who loved you who have gone before
Be there with arms outstretched to greet you.

Father, welcome them into your kingdom.
Please grant them life everlasting.
As they live now in the New Jerusalem,
May your Spirit fill their souls with freedom.

Happy All Saints' Day--and may we always follow the saints' examples, keeping in mind that our eternal destination is one that will put us in their company forever.