Monday, September 30, 2013

Profoundly Countercultural

I sing in the choir at church now.  It's a joy and a labor and every time I open my mouth to sing, my thoughts turn to St. Augustine of Hippo's famous dictum, “He who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully… also loves Him whom he is singing about… in the song of the lover, there is love.” Popularly, this saying is often rendered "He who sings well prays twice."

This morning, I was reminded again of how profoundly counter-cultural I am and how radical Christianity truly is.  Our opening hymn was "Lord, We Have Deserved the Pain."  The tune is Aberystwyth, so listen here as you read these words:

Lord, we have deserved the pain 
That afflicted us again
Justly you have dealt with those
Who have disobeyed your laws.
But give glory to your name
That we may be whole again
And, O Lord, show us your way
And your mercy every day.

Happy those with blameless heart
Following the way of God
Happy those who do his will 
And with whole hearts seek him still
Blest are also those whose ways
Are God-fearing nights and days
God established his commands 
To be kept with diligence.

Help me, Lord, that I may keep, 
Your commands, make my ways straight.
I shall not be shamed at all,
With my eyes fixed on your law.  
With glad hear I give you thanks
That you teach your ordinance.
I shall follow in your way, 
Worship you, profess, and pray.

To the Triune One we raise
Glorious hymns of endless praise
Praise the Father, praise the Son,
Praise the Spirit, with them One.
As it was before all days,
It is now, will be always.
Grateful anthems we present, 
Giving Glory without end.

When do we hear sentiments such as these in popular culture or in our daily lives?   I can't think of one contemporary instance where the moral of the story is that we deserve chastisement (other people, maybe, but not us).  I can't think of one contemporary instance where we are encouraged to follow.

Instead, our culture promotes independence, self-sufficiency, edginess, charting our own course, breaking rules.  It tells us that faithfully following is suspect, for the weak-minded or the impressionable.  Even I do it -- at this week's School of Community, we discussed following, and my first reaction to the reading we were using was to think of the Manson Family!

I was reminded of all this again when I read Calah Alexander's (another UD alum!) blog post about Pope Francis and all the brouhaha about his recent interview published in America magazine.  In it, she says:

I suspect our culture has grown weary of its own sin. I think there is a general undercurrent of exhaustion with all this decadence, and despondency over the emptiness it breeds. I think our culture is absolutely desperate for mercy, but unable to understand why. And I think that’s why they are latching onto Pope Francis so voraciously. When an entire culture has lost a common vocabulary with which to discuss things like sin, forgiveness, and morality, they’ve lost the ability to see the truth, even if the successor of Peter is vanishing into it, the better to hold it up before their eyes. But if the successor of Peter steps out of the truth and looks straight at them, holds out his hand, and says, “let me heal your wounds”…well, that’s a different story. I don’t think the secular culture will be able to see Christ until they have been seen by Him. A patient who is dying of dehydration is usually so confused and disoriented that he or she doesn’t even understand what’s wrong with them. Why would it be any different with desperate afflictions of the soul?

I thought her piece was marvelous.  You should read it all.

The other night, my husband and I had a long discussion about Pope Francis's interview, as reported in the media.  T. was disturbed and thought that Pope Francis was setting himself up to be used by forces that hate the Church, hate Christ, hate Christianity.  He also thought that his remarks were potentially discouraging to people who had spent their lives fighting against the rot that we call our culture.

I contended that, first of all, NEVER NEVER NEVER accept the media or popular culture understanding of anything having to do with Christ, Christianity, or the Church.  These are the people who titilate us year after year with idiotic "proofs" that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and the like.  They don't understand anything about Christianity and don't particularly want to.  Headlines like the those in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and CBS News* are revealing.  They distilled a twenty-page article to a couple of sound bites.  How can this be thought to be accurate analysis?  This piece in the American Thinker expounds upon this idea.

Secondly, and this is the most important thing, the Church can never be understood by the world.  As human beings, we are all subject to our own perspectives and prejudices.  We are great at categorizing things -- this is how we have survived and thrived on the planet.  THESE kinds of berries are good to eat, THOSE kinds will kill you.  People who have THOSE kinds of tribal markings are friends; people with THOSE kinds will kill you.  We analyze and categorize in every way.  And we think that we can categorize the Church.  It's liberal or conservative, it's old or it's new, it's good or it's bad, etc.

The crazy thing is, the Church is not liberal or conservative in a political sense or even a cultural sense.  Any educated Catholic can tell you that the Church's positions on abortion and birth control are completely of a piece with its positions on capital punishment (the Church is against all three because all three violate human dignity). In the political realm, conservatives are generally against abortion and for capital punishment.  Liberals are generally for abortion and birth control and against capital punishment.

No, the Church is not liberal or conservative -- it is radical.  It's about radical love, the love of a God who becomes a human being, who shares our skin, who shares our suffering.  It's about helping people understand that a real, lived relationship with God, with Christ, in my life RIGHT NOW is possible.  Christ, not as a guru, a historical figure, an idea, or an intellectual concept, but A PERSON.  The Catholic Church is the only game in town when it comes to the fullness of this Incarnational notion of God.  St. Teresa of Avila has the most beautiful prayer that talks about this idea of Christ being with us, in the flesh, living, breathing, moving, working, loving.  I think it really encapsulates the beauty of Catholicism.

So, Catholicism is not just about rules and regulations, although those are extremely important, since they ground us in the real and provide structure, which we crave.  The Church and all its rules and doctrines DO act as a bulwark against the technologically-enabled neopaganism that is our culture.  But, being this bulwark is not the telos (the end, the reason) for the Church, but a side effect.  The telos is to enable a relationship between each person and God.  Inasmuch as it does that, it will thrive.  Where it does not, it is lacking.  I think that Pope Francis is reminding us of that, as Pope Benedict XVI did in his way, and my beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II did in his.  We are blessed to have them all.  They help us to be truly and profoundly countercultural.

*Google it if you want, folks -- I'm not going to link to such tripe here, but my search was for "headlines about Pope Francis America article"

Friday, September 27, 2013


Yesterday was a humdinger of day for self-esteem.  I'd been wanting to go to a local TJ Maxx that one of my friends had recommended -- I thought I might pick up some new clothing for my trip to the reunion.  You can't wear a red dress to EVERY event...

I think I've mentioned before how much I hate shopping -- if I haven't, it's A LOT. I don't think I know what looks nice on me and I desperately try to remember "tips" from the various What Not to Wear episodes I used to watch.  One of my good friends stopped by one day while it was on and thought it was really funny to see me watching it because she hadn't had me pegged as a fashionista.  Wonder why?  ;-)

Anyway, I have no patience for the TJ Maxx style of shopping, where you have to go through rack upon rack of misplaced clothes to find anything.  Compounding that problem is that I generally hate the clothing in the sizes I can wear and am attracted instead to styles of clothing that would look lovely on fashion models (as much as I fight against it, I know that I'm prey to common standards of beauty).  At the end of my initial pass of the offerings, I had chosen five things to try on:

From left to right, these are a sweater dress, a cropped open-front cardigan, a thigh-length open navy blue cardigan, a black-with-white polka-dots blouse, and a black sweater with a boat neck and elbow-length sleeves.

As I composed this photograph (and no, I'm not my sister-in-law who has a painterly eye for photography and takes some of the most wonderful pictures you could imagine -- go check her blog out, y'all), something struck me.  All these pieces have some things in common:

  1. They are all on the dark side of the color scale -- I have two brownish things, one dark navy thing, and two black things.  Where are the colors?  Where is the vitality?  Where is the fun?
  2. They are all shapeless.
  3. They all looked awful on me.  The sweater dress was a joke.  Not a good style for me.  The navy blue sweater made me look washed out and I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be.  The black-polka-dotted blouse didn't fit (there are some disadvantages to being, um, well-endowed, despite what my husband would say).  The black sweater was weirdly ruched in all the wrong places.  The brown cardigan was the only possibility I considered (and forgive this awful selfie):

See, this is the crap I have to put up with in the dressing room!  

I did (sort of) like the sweater and was going to buy it.  Nonetheles, I felt beaten down.  I called my husband to say hi, responding to his "how's it going" with "I'm in the throes of self-hatred" and then decided to make myself feel better by looking at some of the other fun things they have at TJ Maxx.  I ended up with a cart full of the sweater, a platter, a Misto Olive Oil sprayer, a hand soap/moisturizer duo in a wire holder, and an adorable little teal glass tchotchke (inspired by my same sister-in-law's house, which I visited this weekend for a stuffed-animal tea party). I went to stand in line, and thank God I looked at my watch -- I had 20 minutes to get to the kids' school from the store, a trip which Google Maps now tells me is a 24 minute trip in good traffic.  Saved myself at least fifty self-pity dollars there.  Whew.  

Undeterred, I'm going out again, this time to a new shop that I have not heard of before. They are evidently having a Buy One Get One for five dollars sale.

And now for something completely related:  This story from Rockefeller Center (the news show with Brian Williams) really touched me.  It's all about seeing Beauty in a new way.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Progress at Last

People have been asking me for my impressions of and experiences with Medifast, which I mentioned here, so I thought that I should take some time to give my initial assessment of the program and what has been happening with me so far.

For those who are unfamiliar with Medifast, it can be most simply described as a meal-replacement system.  In it, you have 5 Medifast "meals" per day and one Lean & Green™ meal.  You eat breakfast within a half-hour of waking and then, every three hours after that, you have a ready-to-eat snack or meal replacement. Once a day, you have a semi-regular meal, which Medifast calls a  Lean & Green™ meal, consisting of a protein, some healthy fat, and three servings of a low glycemic-index vegetable.   And you drink LOTS... OF... WATER.  The program that I am doing is actually called Take Shape for Life (TSFL) and was suggested to me by several people, including my awesome nutritionist who is also a TSFL coach and my cousin J. who is a radiologist and who knows several people who have had success with the program.  The approach is holistic and phased.  It is very medical.

On the positive side, the program is balanced.  It recognizes that people can't eat meal replacements for the rest of their lives and the meal replacements are offered as one stage in a learning process that will lead to a more healthy state.  The emphasis is on health and on doing things that will enrich and improve your life.  The meal replacements are not awful and there is very little hunger (though a number of headaches) associated with following the program.  It also is incredibly freeing not to have to think about food, count points, make menus, etc.

On the negative side, it is quite expensive.  My first order, which included three books and two plastic shaker jars, as well as a month's worth of meal replacements and some bonus meal replacements, cost $399.  When you consider that I am also managing a grocery budget for my family, the total cost of food for the month is steep. (On the other hand, we have completely stopped eating out, so that is something that goes to the black side of the ledger.)  My next order, which will go through in a few days, will cost $287.50, which is more reasonable, but still expensive.  Additionally, at least in the first order, a lot of the meal replacements are a lot more sweet than I like.  I admit that I like cake sometimes, but usually the less sweet the better.  I like savory things much more.  I was able to adjust this in the subsequent order, so that is good.  Another thing that I don't really like a lot is that I am not able to have things like cheese, crackers, dairy, breads, fruits, and some vegetables.  I actually miss bananas, which is something because I am not usually a fan.  I know that this is a temporary sacrifice I am making, but there is a boredom factor that is creeping in after 3 weeks or so.

In terms of results, I have lost weight.  In the first two weeks, I lost a little over five pounds, and I have lost almost ten since late July.  It is slow, though, and I am not super happy about that.  I'm in it for the long-haul, though, and will do what I must.

So, I would say that my review is generally positive, though clear-eyed about the negative side of the equation. Now it's off for my "lunch" -- a meal replacement that I think will be some "soup" or maybe some "chili".

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Shape of Evil Redux

Three years ago, I sat at my dining room table after having put the Chickadees to bed.  My husband had gone from the birthday party we held for Chickadee #2 straight to the airport, where he left for a week-long business trip to an exotic locale.  All day, I had been avoiding thinking about September 11th, 2001.  All day, I'd smiled and laughed and joined in the general celebration of our younger daughter.

I was exhausted and sad that my husband would be away, stressed out as only an introvert who has hosted a party can be.  I made the mistake of turning on the television after the chickadees were asleep.  This post was the result.

Today, I feel more than ever that perfect love drives out all fear.

I feel more strongly than ever that hatred is a dead end.

As I, with my countrymen, contemplate yet another campaign in this seemingly endless war against evil, I believe more than ever in the particularity of human experience and the importance of honoring that individuality.

People are not symbols.
People are not pawns to be moved on a geopolitical chessboard.
People are not expendable
or collateral damage
or civilians
or citizens
or "the people"
or Americans
or Syrians
or "the children"
or any other collective noun which inevitably becomes an abstraction.

They are individuals.
Each one has a story.
Each one has a family.
Each one is irretrievably lost to us...

but none is lost to God.    
They are in his heart.
They ARE his heart.

Rest in Peace.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Seven Quick Takes -- all I can manage in these scattered days.

Seamus Heaney died last Friday.  I was so sad over the weekend and found myself tearing up at odd moments.  I wrote this tribute.
I have reserved my rental car for my trip to Irving next month.  I'm getting excited.  Twenty-five years is a long time....
Speaking of Irving, I found lectures by Louise Cowan on the Dallas Institute of Arts and Humanities website.  I am so excited.  I listened to Dr. Cowan talk about Faulkner and Go Down, Moses while I made some really excellent Greek Turkey Meatballs and Tzaziki for dinner.  The tears that were filling my eyes were not from the red onion in the recipe but because Dr. Cowan reminds me of why I wanted to save the world through poetry.
I started Medifast last week.  I was not super happy about it, but my doctor basically gave me no choice.  I'm pretty satisfied with it, to be honest, because it takes the thinking out of dieting, and I have lost weight.  I check my total lost tomorrow, but so far I have been thinking differently and I think that is a good thing.  I've also been acting differently, which is even better.
This morning, on the way to school, Chickadee #1 asked me if you had to be related to your godparents.  This opened a discussion about baptism, and the chickadees asked me why we had godparents anyway.  That opened the door for what I think it was a good explanation. I told them that we, as Catholics, believe that our relationship is not just between us and God but between us and the community and God.  As parents, we are the ones who are responsible for teaching our children about God and nurturing their relationship with him.  However, we rely on other people to help us and those are the godparents and others.  It's like we are all in a boat together, working together to sail towards the same destination. Some people don't want to go to that destination and decide they want to go somewhere else that they think is better.  So they jump overboard and swim away in the other direction.  Some of them drown, some of them get eaten by sharks, and some of them are rescued.  But we are all trying to get to someplace good, and the best bet is to stay on the boat and work together to get to heaven.  They seemed to get it.  It's amazing what you can get
into a 3 mile drive in traffic.
--- 7 ---
I'm listening to one of my favorites, Bill Whittle. He is so articulate.  Love him.
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Seamus and Me

This was my first exposure to Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Laureate, and the man who restored my faith in contemporary poetry:

Digging was the first poem of Seamus Heaney's that I experienced.  My class notes, from my year at Trinity College in Dublin really make me wonder why I ever thought I could make a living analyzing poetry, but what they don't express is how much I loved Heaney.  How I saw myself in the speaker of this poem and how I identified with Heaney in many ways.  How I felt he expressed some part of me when he spoke of grandfathers, fathers, sons, legacies, and writing.  How I felt that our backgrounds were the same, as dissimilar as they were.  

Here I am, listening to that inner muse, right around the time I first read Heaney, in Wicklow, 1988-1989.
Like Heaney, I come from a working class background -- he from small farmers, factory workers, and servants, I from mechanics, laborers, electricians, servants, and merchant seamen.  Like him, I'm more at ease around words and ideas than wrenches and hammers and spades.  But, again like him, I have such a great admiration for those men and women whose hard work has made my life possible.  I admire my dad's ability to fix anything at all -- I remember once when I was a girl, our furnace stopped working in the middle of a cold winter.  The fan blowing hot air through the house didn't work.  Of course, we didn't have the money to buy a new furnace and our model was so old that parts were not available.  My dad's solution was to take the fan out, rewire it, and put it back into the furnace backwards so that it worked.  I still am not sure how he did it or why it worked, but our furnace lasted at least another 10 years.  I see my own dad when Heaney says, "By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man."

I look remarkably simian here....???
I've neglected Heaney, sure, leaving my signed copy of the Faber & Faber edition resting on the shelf, only peered into when I've moved or rearranged or needed some particular consolation.  I held my memories of him in a place separate from the workaday world I live in, like little precious gems:  Reading Digging  for the first time.  Meeting Heaney at a reading at University of Maryland, 1990.  Hearing that he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.  Hearing Liam Neeson read from "The Cure at Troy", hearing that "the longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme."

Heaney is the only person I've ever heard who could leave an entire lecture hall dead silent with the power of poetry.

Every once in a while, I would take my copy of Seamus Heaney:  Poems 1965-1975 down from the shelf, almost furtively, in between making dinner and helping with homework, and read the mysterious and awful Punishment:  

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeuur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

This past Friday, August 30th, I woke up to crazy music in the morning.  My husband likes music to wake him up -- I prefer news.  I jumped out of bed, spun the dial to NPR, and caught the the tail end of a news story that seemed to mean that Heaney had died.  I made the bed, thinking -- surely that can't be -- maybe he's in hospital or maybe there's some tribute to him somewhere.  I came downstairs, turned the computer on, and found that he had indeed passed away from the complications of a stroke. I found a lovely poem I'd never seen before, A Dog Was Crying To-night in Wicklow Also and made my husband read it to the children on the way to school.  (His comment:  "Who's this Chuckwu?")

Seamus, I will miss you.  Thank you for your voice.