Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shopping and Psalm 139

Psalm 139, verses 13-16 says: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Recently, I read a compelling book called Cravings:  A Catholic Wrestles with Food, Self-Image, and God.  I've had the intention for weeks to really take some of the ideas in this book to heart, to work through some of the meditation questions, and to (hopefully) move forward from this place of being "stuck" that I've been in for so long.  But something is stopping me.  Reading the first chapter of the book was so difficult for me.  My sister also reported the same reaction -- tears.  Reading this Psalm is so difficult if you take it seriously. 

If you hate the way your body looks, try remembering and believing "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" after even a short time spent clothes shopping, as I did this afternoon.  Standing in a dressing room trying clothes on is an exercise in self-flagellation, self-hatred, and self-doubt, no matter how much I try to pretend that it's not.  I have never liked clothes shopping, even as a thin young thing.  I find it really disconcerting to try clothing on and find that it looks nothing like I think it should when it's actually on me. 

In the end, I selected the really pretty dress pictured here because I have a similar one and I know what the dress looks like on me.  After trying on something that I mistakenly thought would look nice and thinking, "How can he say he loves THIS?" (sorry, husband), I ended up buying the dress, camisole, and sweater without trying them on.  I just couldn't stand to find out that they look so much better on a hanger than they do on me.  Tonight, I'll pack them in my suitcase, untried on, and pack a "backup" outfit too.  And, all the way to Florida, I'll read Psalm 139 and try not to scoff in my heart. 

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Seven Quick Takes

It's been an exciting week here in my world.  In both good and bad ways.

1.  Last weekend, my husband and I escaped to a luxury boutique hotel in the city of my birth, Baltimore.  It was lovely.  Really lovely.  The Hotel Monaco (A Kimpton Hotel) originally was the B&O Railroad's headquarters building.  Built in my beloved Beaux Arts style, the building originally opened in 1906.  My uncle, an engineer whom I once insulted by asking what it was like to drive a train, worked in this building.  I didn't realize how lucky he was until this weekend.  Go look at the pictures -- really, they are gorgeous.  In keeping with the "it's a great weekend for architecture" theme, I was blown away by the building next door -- One Charles Center.  I learned the next day that it had been designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.  A super cool experience was looking out our window at night and into this office building.  It was so amazing that I tried to take a picture, but all I got was the reflection of my flash on the window.  I can't describe it well, but if you have ever played with a dollhouse, you will know the feeling I had as I looked at all the little conference tables and offices illuminated from within, shining out into the night.  So cool.

2.  We spent a wonderful morning at the Walters Art Gallery just up the street from our hotel.  We spent almost all our time on the fourth floor with the 19th century paintings.  My favorite was called An Accident by a painter whom I'd never heard of before -- a painter with a very, very impressive name:  Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouvret.  I loved it for a weird reason -- the bowl of bloody water in the foreground look so luminous.  It was really amazing. 

3.  Habemus Papam!  I was so excited watching St. Peter's Square and all of the excitement there.  I admit I was like "Bergoli-WHO?".  But Pope Francesco (I'm sorry, I'm going to call him Franceso to myself) seems like a wonderful choice, straddling many themes.  I like his emulation of Il Poveretto, St. Francis of Assisi.  My weekend in Assisi while on the Rome semester and then, later on my honeymoon, showed me the power a personality can have on a place.  So many hundreds of years later, St. Francis still lived in Assisi.  I think we are blessed to have a Holy Father who thinks the spirit of St. Francis is something we should all emulate.  (and not the schlocky 70's version of St. Francis either -- the St. Francis who would do the radical in service of the Lord).

4.  My children have a monster mommy.  At least they would tell you that.  But I've been getting tough with them and it's really gratifying to see them respond.

5.  Showing my crazy side, however, we are also reading and studying the epic of Gilgamesh, using Geraldine McCaughrean's Gilgamesh the Hero.  We are all loving it.  I'm loving the idea of introducing epic poetry to an 8 year old and a 6 year old.  They are loving the attention and drawing pictures of Gilgamesh.  McCaughrean evidently specializes in retelling this kind of story, so we may move on the her versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey after this.  Lit Trad I by the age of 10!!!!

6.  Exercising has been at a minimum this week, and I've really fallen off the tracking bandwagon.  Busy and discouraged.  Need a break from thinking about it.  Anxious that I'm supposed to go back to the doctor in April and I probably won't be where I want to be.  URRRGH!

7.  Going to FLA in 11 days to see my parents.  Chickadees are really excited by the concept of flying. I'm less enchanted by the thought of travelling alone with them and the fact that we are not able to be seated together.  We'll see how it goes. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

So What is the Temptation to Gnosticism?

When I was in high school, I took a 20th century novel class with a teacher whose name escapes me (I've now remembered it, but am not putting it here in case she reads the internet ;-)).   I don't remember much about her except the low-cut tee shirts she wore every single day.  There's nothing wrong with this look, of course -- it's just that she was a fairly well-endowed woman, that she sat at a student desk leaning forward facing the class with her arms crossed under her bust line, and that she had seated boys in every front row seat.  I can't think that that was an accident.  She was odd.  Aside from the tee shirt thing and her inordinate love of biographical criticism, what I remember most about this teacher is that she assigned me to read and do a presentation on Herman Hesse's novel, Demian.  When I say it disturbed me, I mean it FREAKED ME OUT.  It was my first introduction to the concept of gnosticism, an old heresy that continues to rear its ugly head.  A type of gnosticism, Manicheanism, posits that the light and the darkness are continually at war and that the universe (and human beings) were created as a result of this war.  The goal of spiritual life is to extract the light (the spirit) from the dark (the material).  Hesse's novel is all about this.

At least two of my beloved writers from the early 20th century, Joyce and Yeats (what IS it with the Irish, huh?) included aspects of gnosticism in their works.  Joyce had the whole initiate and adept thing down pat, as I found when I finally was able to read Ulysses after multiple attempts.  I read it in a special seminar in graduate school and remember being so incredibly frustrated at the babble I was having to wade through.  I was reading the words, but not understanding.  My professor kept urging me to just keep reading and to not give up.  Once I'd reached the Episode 4 (Calypso), I was starting to enjoy myself.  By Episode 15 (Circe), I was having a grand auld time.  In talking about the experience, the professor reminded me that the stumbling blocks to understanding all were in the first part of the novel, commonly called The Telemachiad (after Odysseus's son, Telemachus).  Wading through that difficult part of the novel was my "initiation" according to the gnostic path of spirituality, and now I was an "adept".  And, of course, Yeats was a devotee of Madame Blavatsky and a member of the Theosophical Society which she founded.  He delved further and further into esoterica and believed in things (such as automatic writing, which he practiced with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees) that no Nobel Poet Laureate should.

So, why am I talking about Herman Hesse, Joyce, and Yeats (besides my love for at least the last two)?  Why am I talking about gnosticism?  I think it's because I find it very tempting and at the same time disturbing and elitist. 

First the tempting part -- it's a truism that life can be ugly, full of suffering and sadness.  Who wouldn't want to escape it?  Who wouldn't want to think, "if I only had the key, the wisdom, I could transcend all this suffering.  I could become what I REALLY am -- a spiritual being -- instead of being trapped here in this material and suffering realm."  Of course, it's also tempting to believe that you have some kind of special knowledge -- that you have passed the test of the initiate and have read all 21 chapters of Ulysses and liked it.  (As both my dad and my husband would say, "That and a five dollar bill will get you a cuppa coffee at Starbucks").

Now the disturbing and elitist part (and the point, I think).  First, why should we believe that we should transcend suffering?  No one but a masochist seeks suffering out, but all of us surely understand that it will come to us.  What we do with it is the question.  My normal response to suffering is to curl in a ball and whine, 'WHY ME.  OH WHY ME?'.  That's the disturbing part.  The elitist part is the dangerous thinking that somehow, if only I could xxx, I could fix the suffering, end the suffering, because I'm so smart, motivated, and work-oriented, that I can fix it myself.  All those other people who can't seem to get their lives, their families, their households, their weight under control?  Well, I'm not like that.  I could if I really wanted to do it. 

So, what do I do with the fact that I don't do it?  That, after years of "trying", here I still am? 

Choice #1:  Self-hatred.  Wallowing.  More ice cream.

Choice #2:  Realize my radical dependence on something (SOMEONE) more capable than myself, someone who sees my efforts and says, "Hey, that burden you are carrying?  Put it down.  MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.  Try it for a while." 

And my response, with the father of the possessed child in Matthew 9: 14-29 is "Lord, I believe.  Oh help my unbelief." 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Snow Days Work For Me!

Last night, there was a buzz rising and rising and rising in our house.  The chickadees were keyed up to a fine point of almost unendurable excitement.  There was the possibility of a SNOW DAY -- with Winter Storm Saturn bearing down on our area, we were looking at a significant amount of snow for the first time this winter.  We had children wearing pajamas inside out and backwards.  We had children taking spoons upstairs to put under their pillows.  We had children throwing ice cubes in toilets at PRECISELY 8 p.m.  Sympathetic magic. 

Sympathetic magic that worked!

We woke this morning to find that schools have closed.  There are several inches of snow on the ground and we are expecting more.  Best of all, Daddy's work is closed today.  Before 7 a.m., we had a massive parent/child cuddle (we discovered that the chickadees are too big to cuddle with us for long).  Chickadee #1 finished reading her book using the time-honored method of sneaking books into the bathroom.  Currently, I'm blogging, Daddy and chickadees are watching The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers and I'm explaining the feminist longings of Eowyn to Daddy and Chickadee #2 is expounding on the unfairness of patriarchal societies.  Am not kidding.  She is six.  We are going to make peanut butter cookies later.  This is gonna be a great day!

Snow Days Work for Me.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Body (Touch and Be Touched -- Part II)

One of the best and most radical exercises in my yoga classes involves a tennis ball and gravity.  Marianne tells us during every class that people in our culture sit too much which means that our hamstrings are continually tight.  In the hamstring and tennis ball exercise, after "unhooving" our feet (manipulating them with our hands, breaking up the tissue by massage, and using the tennis ball to stretch our feet in new and interesting ways), we sit on our yoga mats and place the tennis ball at the point where our buttock and thigh meet.  We press down upon the tennis ball, roll our leg left and right with the tennis ball still in place, and cross the opposite leg over and press down.  When we are done, we remove the tennis ball.  It's amazing that EVERY TIME we do this, the back of the thigh we have just worked on attains noticeably more contact with the mat than the one we have not yet addressed.  It never fails to amaze everyone that, after the tennis ball is removed, we are all sitting at a slant.  The difference is that stark. In the same way, after an hour or so of yoga, of paying attention to where and how our bodies operate in space, all of us notice that our feet make more contact with the floor, that we stand with our feet parallel, that we walk with more surety upon the earth.  And, at the end of class, during Savasana (corpse pose) our entire bodies are touching the floor, melting into the floor.  When we rise into sitting position and place our hands in the prayer position we allow, as Marianne says, our hands to "touch and be touched." 

Recently, on Facebook, I saw a quote from Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and I'm having trouble with it. In The Phenomenon of Man, Tielhard de Chardin says, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."  I'm not entirely sure I agree with this.  I think it's because, in my memory (and this is the temptation to Gnosticism), it had become something like:  We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience."  When I went back to look up the exact quote (thank you, Al Gore (never thought I'd say that in print)), I found that Teilhard de Chardin's thinking is a little more sophisticated than that, but I'm still not sure what he means.  And I'm still not sure I agree with what I think he means. 

In Christianity (and particularly in Catholicism) matter, stuff, the givenness of things is really important.  A sacrament, for example, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality -- the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  The holy water and oil used at baptism actually effect a change in the person being baptized.  The words and motions of the priest in the confessional actually confer the grace of God's forgiveness onto the penitent, and the penitent's carrying out of the penance given are outward signs of that grace. 

A thought experiment:  If a priest reads the Eucharstic Prayer over "gifts" of soda pop and Twinkies, and then distributes them, is this Holy Communion?  If he says the words of the baptismal rite over a person, but doesn't use water to baptize, did the baptism take place?  If I stop into the rectory to talk to the priest, and I say the very same words to tell him my faults as I would have in the confessional, but he doesn't say the words of absolution and doesn't give me a penance that I then carry out, have I participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? 

The Catholic Church emphatically says NO in all these scenarios.  It says no because of its unapologetic insistence that THINGS are important.  It's not just our souls that are having an experience of God.  It's our bodies too.  It's the physical, material world as well.  The Creation and its creatures reflect the nature of the Creator and, that Creator being all-good, they participate in some way in his goodness.

Funny that a blog ostensibly about losing weight should have morphed into a somewhat incoherent exploration of the body, and especially, of incarnateness. Hmmmm. What is God trying to tell me here?

Well, for one thing, the whole point of losing weight is to have less stuff, less matter, attached to our beings, isn't it?  The message is:  lose weight and be more of your "true self" because who you are is not this body you have.  But what if that is wrong?  What if who you are IS the body you have?  And the intellect. And the soul.  What if they are all equally important?

When I was in college at the University of Dallas (see 3324. Literary Study I: Lyric), I spent a semester studying the poems of W.B. Yeats for my Junior Poet Project.  In addition to a comprehensive annotated bibliography of critical resources on the poet, I was responsible for knowing Yeats' entire poetic and dramatic oevre.  Y'all, Yeats' first published in 1886 and continuing publishing until 1939 -- I was like a kamikaze poetry student in those days!.  I remember studying with another student who had also chosen Yeats as "his" poet and asking him which of Yeats's poems were his favorite.  The response I got, "A Stick of Incense" was probably calculated to shock prudish and innocent li'l ole me.  But that response, and later, my study of the Crazy Jane poems, especially "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" started me on a path of thinking.  Now, twenty-five years later (gulp), I'm still thinking about the body, about incarnateness, carnality, and The Incarnation.  I haven't reached any conclusions, but I'm still thinking about it and still so grateful that God, since he knows so well how screwed up we would always be as we struggled with both spirit and matter, became incarnate to show us that the created world is good.  We, in our bodies, are good.  This acknowledgement of and teaching about the goodness of our bodies, however, leads to some conclusions that we do not like at all.  More on that later.