Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 3

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the third talk of this final section.

Vita Contemplativa—The Contemplative Life

Contemplation, c. 1875 by Thomas Couture (French, 1815 – 1879)

What is contemplation?

“It’s immediate and direct meaning indicates seeing, beholding, perceiving some reality

“…To contemplate means first of all to see—and not to think!

“…Also contains a special intensified way of seeing. – The gift of retaining and preserving in one’s own memory whatever has been visually perceived.”

“…it certainly perceives more than mere appearances.”

To see and not to think. Thus are more of the Church’s mystics women rather than men. There is something in the nature of woman that enables her to simply sit, to enjoy, to delight. She does it most naturally with her children, perhaps in a quieter age. So this features opens her up more easily to contemplate, to actively receive, to see the divine. Man is able as well, but woman has a particular inclination to simply sit and watch and see. Typically, man would analyze, and act.

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See how she delights in nature, while he is actively destroying it.

I am not so simply made that I think this is always the case. My incredible levels of energy cause me to do quite often. But I see between my husband and myself a difference. Although I am the achiever and one more likely to want to discuss, between us, I am the one who can more easily sit with the children, just sit, not think, just be and watch.

This piercing of the word contemplation also calls to mind my work, as in an earlier section. I must sit and contemplate the information and the person presented to me.

“The eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of “seeing” is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance!”

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Vincent VanGogh, Women Miners Carrying Coal, 1881-82

“And yet, nothing in this affirming closeness to reality smacks of false idealization, nothing is embellished as if all reality were wholesome and without rough edges.”

I think back to an earlier reflection on the art of the work I do, working with people. I must see them as they are, with love, in order to give them what will really help them. It is not uncommon for me by myself to take a moment after meeting with a troubled client to contemplate the story they have shared. I do not analyze it. I take it in, I let it “simmer” so to speak. Inspiration comes.

“Those who have seen enough…who are satisfied with the outward appearance of things, may easily be content with contriving some smooth and crowd-pleasing yet shallow fabrication.”

 I hear stories often about therapists who have not been helpful, who have rambled or given simple strategies but not fully entered into the story the client has shared. I suppose they have seen enough.

We cannot contemplate in a crowd. It calls for silence, for us to be alone. I have always needed to see art alone. I am an extrovert. I am too inclined too talk, too inclined to awareness of the feelings of those around me. When I am alone, I could stay and look and remember that the art evokes. I could really take time for prayer.

the mission:

If we grant Pieper the truth of his statements, art becomes a teaching tool for children. If children are surrounded by beautiful art and given space from technology and media, they will have the opportunity to recall, to allow the great art to resonate inside them before they even have words to recognize it. They will be too young to sit and contemplate. But if we believe it to be true, opportunities will create a greater facility to contemplate and to love, to understand deeper mysteries of the universe. It is a tall order, but if we believe it to be true, it can do great things.

It will do great things if we allow our senses to be restored to the real. First, the church’s were stripped of their art, their tactile and aural references to the divine. Second, technology came about to help facilitate active participation by project song lyrics on the blank wall. The artist in me recoils at the thought! When people desired some color or change to the building, they hung plain banners, for art had grown too foreign and expensive in the culture. Or too ugly.

But art has great power. Harnessing that power, bringing art and beauty back into the life of the Everyman, we can re-awake his consciousness to the divine. He can see again and be reminded that life is more than simply the task at hand or the news on the screen. There could be hope. There could be joy. There could be a festival.

Reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 2

The art of God

There are a great many things to see. Josef Pieper in Only the Lover Sings, section two titled “Learning to see again,” discusses the need for us to see and the great poverty that occurs when we are no longer able to see the world as it is really is, in its depths, in its glory, as the work that reflects the hand of the artist, God himself.

It must be a great and magnificent world we live in. Why should this modern age in America be so numb to the transcendent, the glorious? Instead of beauty, so much “modern art” reflects disgust and the trouble within the human spirit. It is the noise of the age that makes it difficult, Pieper astutely points out.

“Yet one reason must not be overlooked either: the average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see! There does exist something like “visual noise” which just like the acoustical counterpart, makes clear perception impossible.”

He wrote these words in 1950. Had he even written these words in 1980 there would still be a vast difference between then and now. How much more noise is present with our internet-age, our smartphone-age? With the constant barrage of advertisements and visual noise it is no wonder we are so uncomfortable with silence.

“At stake here is this: How can man be saved from becoming a totally passive consumer of mass-produced goods and a subservient follower beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim?”

There is a large segment of the population very much taken up in this passive consumption, totally unaware that so much of the personal business is guided by the business of advertising. All of our precious social media websites are ultimately about making money for the creator or company that runs them.

I will acknowledge though, a thread of hope that runs throughout: the power of the news. Though many are still taking their news from those companies who, at the end of the day, hope to make a profit, there is a great wealth of information now being shared to get a clearer, more informed picture to people. Likewise the DIY movement, the homesteading movement, the homeschooling movement. There is a lot at work now in society very much focused on creation. Perhaps those involved have grown weary of the noise, of the profiteering, and recognize in the silence and stillness of earth and home, joy can be found.

Another thought stirs me as I read this chapter. Mother Theresa said, “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Pieper calls our inability see as the most abject poverty. What do we fail to see most, with the visual noise, the clutter, the consumerism? We fail to see the human person. Is there any greater art? Is there any greater creation than the intricate, wild, free-willed, rational human person?

Christ could look at the woman at the well and see her. He possessed, as Pieper describes it, “a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked.”

We can possess this too. Pieper, indeed, does not describe this possession as being that of Christ’s, but necessary for any man. In my field, where we work using a set of scientific tools artistically applied, those who are big in the business can look at a person and instantly take in a great deal of information about that person. We are trained to look and to look deeply, take it in and then process in order to understand this person.

“In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and, thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.”

I know Pieper is talking about art. My mind continues to go back to the work. It is the same act. Each client I encounter is a gift to me. It is a gift to know him or her, to see into their world, to feel their pain, and to celebrate their joys. I have to move silently, listening, watching, waiting, not putting forth my own thoughts, but rather seeing the world as they see it. Only then can I really help them.

Perhaps this is why the field suffers so at times, or so with particular practitioners. If they cannot see the person as art, cannot see the One who created this client, then there is little hope, there are only techniques. It would be the person with eyes to see, who could guide that suffering soul to the heights for which God has made them, at least to see those heights exist and that they are worthy to approach them. Then God’s grace will guide them the rest of the way. We are so broken. We have lost the vision of ourselves.

Learning to see.

What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,” (Ps 8, 4-5)

One of the greatest things we can do is to see this in each other.

To live out this call, this necessary skill, one does not need to be a writer, a sculptor, a painter. What is art? What is leisure? It is something we are all capable of possessing. I look into the faces of my children. Their faces light up. As I receive what my eyes set upon, they come alive and provide a great show. I can contemplate their beauty.

The noise, the distraction, prevents all this.

Visual noise. I have long thought about this. Having a cellphone simply present on a table is correlated with more superficial conversation than when no cellphone is visible. Using a laptop in a classroom setting changes the dynamic dance of knowledge from teacher to student. We become machines, consuming, spitting out data.

Here is a moment. We stood at the fence when Pope Benedict XVI would pass by. I decided I would not take a picture. I would look. I would take it in. He looked right in my direction. I still see his gaze, as if upon me and me alone. I have seen many photographs of the man. But that moment is in my heart.

Breathing air into ideas: thoughts on the need for community

We need community! When we lived in Virgina, our family experienced life within an exceptional community. It is what happens in academia. Individuals, like minded or not, but like-passioned, live and work near each other, exchange ideas, develop their thoughts through discussion. It is a wonderful experience. After the birth of our first child, it became clear that I could not continue full time studies. Therefore, we closed up shop after I received my M.S. in Clinical Psychology at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, and we moved home. Home, home. In my little novella about a girl and her king, he takes her home “inside the walls” into a world of simplicity and humility. When I wrote that I was 19, and was in the process of transitioning from missionary work to life at home. It was a spiritual transition, from a daily life focused on nothing but God, his riches, suffering and service, to a daily life focused on family interactions, work and study…real life, as it were. When we lived in Virginia, it was a cultural Mecca. But we were called to leave.

Books like The Little Way of Ruthie Leming helped me along. What is that longing for the big city, the culture, the arts, the shopping if not a search for pleasure? The greater way lies in the narrower way, through family, relationships, and our roots. What will matter more in the end? You cannot build the same relationships in a metropolitan maze as you can in a small town neighborhood where, ahem, everyone knows your name.

Now I find myself still longing. We are exceedingly happy here, more happy than we’ll ever deserve. We are close to family and my family is part of our regular life. We have steady work, thanks be to God. We have found a parish where we feel at home and finally, after three years have managed to invite a priest to our home (the associate pastor of that parish no less, a sign, I think). The book club I proposed in an earlier post is, electronically, taking place with a group of women I know from around the country. We write when we can, and how it all works will smooth itself out, but more to the point for myself, I’ve finished two books because of it. I’m crafting again, and loving it. Writing as well, as you know. Our home is beautiful, our neighbors are wonderful. Why should I long for more? Isn’t it wrong or ungrateful?

I don’t think it is and here is why. My husband and I passionate people. When I did missionary work, my teammates pointed out to me my extensive use of the word “love.” I love waterfalls; I love peppermint ice cream. Now that I have a four-year old imitator in all I do and say, I realize I also “hate” a lot. I hate this seat belt (that gets stuck); I hate these shutters (that break easily and cannot be fixed). I feel strongly. As far as temperaments go I am choleric-melancholic and my husband is melancholic-phlegmatic. We feel deeply.

We discuss. We exchange ideas. But since we are like-minded on the things that matter most (we married each other after all), and in our discussions go deeper on this path together, as a married-couple journey, which is wonderful, we are not challenged enough. It is better to have one’s ideas tested and threatened by those who think differently. Then we must adapt and our ideas truly grow. Ideas in captivity, in a closed safe environment become weak once they face a threat in the real world.

It’s not only good intellectually but an absolutely must spiritually:

Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote in a Christmas homily, those who are rich in knowledge “have to do a great deal of gymnastics to extricate themselves from their neat and tidy concepts, opinions, perspectives, experiences and worldviews” before they can approach in humble faith “the naked earth where the Child lies in the crib.” And then, at the crib, they must offer their “intellectual riches . . . to holy poverty,” accepting “the inner poverty of all human knowledge [in order to find] their way to the divine poverty.” (from George Weigal’s article “Christmas and the humbling of the Wise Men”)

Upon our return from Virginia, my friend and ministry-colleague and I began a lecture series called the John Paul II Lectures for the New Evangelization. The goal was to create a forum for intellectual discussion and creativity, our own Inklings. I had just one child born at the time. Now I have three. My friend moved, returned, married. The future is unclear. I think a more informal setting would be better, perhaps in our homes for discussion, drinking, and camaraderie.

My husband had a similar idea, but in his own field. Cantus cum cervisia, chant and beer. A group of men could gather, chant some old hymns, then drink good beer together and commune. Though he found some men interested, again with the children, the idea never got off the ground.

We are dissatisfied with our home and the incredible gifts God has given us. But we long to grow in wisdom and virtue, so we continue to seek. We shall see what the New Year holds.

 

The Capitalist Culture

Where does your culture come from? Definitions of culture from the dictionary include “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group” and “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” The United States is made up of many diverse cultures and ethnic groups which results in a fusion of cultures. Some groups remain separate from the larger culture, but typically their children developed a mixed-heritage way of life, balancing between their parent’s culture and the American culture at large.

Traditionally the ingredients of culture might include a unique style of music, unique-historical clothes, religion and its included practices, parenting styles, expected familial and gender roles, and a community to practice all these things in.

Modern secular society comes in stark contrast with these ingredients. One by one:

Music is no longer a product of culture in the United States, it is a product, largely technological, sold to make money.

Clothing is an ongoing development of styles, taking from many traditions, but focused on profit and the effort to get you to keep spending, out with the old, nothing stays on the shelves so buy now.

Religion is old-fashioned and man-made. Science is truth. Tolerance is the new religion and as such traditional religion should not be publicly practiced because it might offend others and offense is the greatest sin against the religion of tolerance.

Out with the traditional family. Most children are born and raised in family structures other than two-parent intact households.

Gender roles are socially constructed. Gender is socially constructed and fluid. Therefore any roles typically attributed to one gender is a limitation of that gender’s potential and should be negotiated.

What community? From rural to city to suburban, by and large we no longer know our neighbors. Since religion is out, community won’t be found there. Don’t trust your neighbors. Most likely someone you know will be the one to harm your children in lasting and traumatic ways.

The definition includes a note of transmitting culture. If culture is derived from religion, the motivation to transmit comes from a motivation to evangelize. If culture is derived from ethnic heritage, the motivation to transmit, while here in the United States comes from a desire not to lose one’s history in the melting pot that is middle America. But families begin to intermarry, as is good and the American way, and when a child’s ethnic heritage consists of ten different regions, the family begins to pick and choose which culture they identify with most. In the Greatest Generation, those who were young during the Depression and fought of World War II, there was a spirit of American conformism. Men and women changed their more ethnically sounding names to fit in. It must be a white, Protestant culture, so the sentiment went. If you didn’t conform, you were out of luck and so you were excluded.

Now we have a different movement at place. Cultural guilt is a real thing. In the US, in general, there is such an amount of guilt over the treatment of minorities, that now the sentiment is less “who has less color/who is native born (go to the front of the class)” and now more, “who can be more diverse,” or “who has more color?” So it seems to me the heritage that might have been passed down through white European decent is thrown into a box labeled “white” and nothing more.

Many elements of our modern society wipe out traditional ingredients and sources of culture. We are left with a vacuum. What takes place then?

As Archbishop Chaput indicated in his recent Erasmus lecture, “democracy isn’t just ‘allied’ with modern technology; it depends on it.” In practical terms, this means that the entertainment industry is the most powerful manufacturer of public opinion. Politicians themselves acknowledge this fact by spending vast amounts of money to buy space in the media and in the craven pursuit of celebrity endorsements at election time (Carl R. Trueman).

If we do not make an effort to build up the culture, to preserve our cultural heritage, to seek a way to transmit cultural practices to future generations, then something must take its place. What else is there?

Since the strongest community for the young is an internet community, and much of what the young spend their time doing (social media) is driven (behind the scenes) by profit seeking, the young are, knowingly and unknowingly exposed to advertising. What is not a product of advertising? Thanksgiving becomes a holiday meant for shopping. The Christmas season, now the generic holiday season is about Santa and shopping (in school it is about Santa, elves, Elsa, and presents). People sigh helplessly and how stores push holidays earlier and earlier, but where else do we gather with people for leisure if not in the marketplace when the churches are out of the modern equation?

We should not give up hope. We can take a conscientious stance on culture, holding onto and transmitting traditions from our past, adopting new traditions that incorporate the sentiment we hope to pass on.  There is a fascinating movement attempting to retake culture through the green movement, organic products, home farming, diy projects. It is anti-corporate. It practices subsidiarity, operating the most local level possible.

Some will fight for culture, those in religion, but then even those not in religion who see something being lost in the bland marketing playground of American society. I am eager to see what happens. I think that the transcendent aspect of religion acts as the glue to bind it all together. What is the core value of the secular millennial movement? It is not the rebellion that captivated the 60’s and 70’s. It is something more. I await the revelation with bated breath.

Some thoughts on the overexposure of children to Frozen

Instant gratification occurs sometimes out of love and sometimes as a quick way out of a difficult situation, be it meltdown time at the grocery store or Christmas time when we’re lost on what to buy our children.

We live in an age of instant gratification. For the purposes of this post, instant gratification is defined as the moment when a child expresses a desire for something and gets it immediately or when a child has their frequent requests for the same thing reinforced. My proposal is that children are being gratuitously gratified in the arts and entertainment.

There is great artistic potential in cinema and television. They also contain great lucrative potential for their makers. Where the movie meets the screen you have a dynamic meeting of artists (those who draw, write, imagine, create), producers (the ones investing and looking for a return on investment), marketers (those responsible for making this thing catch), parents who choose what is good for their children to watch, and the children eager to consume the media.

In my experience, children are fascinated with the movement on the screen. My eldest child is in preschool. Her entrance to preschool coincided with the onslaught of the Disney machine’s exploitation of Frozen. Everywhere we go we see Frozen paraphernalia. The endless exposure makes Frozen the first thing on a child’s mind, or second perhaps, to Santa. So when asked what they want, or when they point out the things they see in a store, it’s Frozen. Perhaps the parent buys it or plays it because they see it makes the child happy. What if the child would be happy with many other options, but lists Frozen items because they are always in the forefront.

I don’t have many problems with the movie Frozen. I personally dislike it because I think her abandonment of the throne, the difficulties of a town suddenly frozen would have been more interesting to examine rather than her joy at escaping repression. I don’t begrudge those who do like it. I find the famous song out-of-sync with the wider context. It celebratory style misses the fact that she is a newly crowned queen abandoning her kingdom. It is said that part of the attraction is you cannot quite determine if it’s a villain’s song or princess’s song. I dislike the movement of misunderstood villain’s. It doesn’t make for good story-telling. It makes for weak, confused story-telling that often whitewashes the impact of the misunderstood villain’s actions on others.

Back to topic: perhaps it would help our children’s imaginations to limit their intake of favorite media as you would with favorite food. It seems harmless but children easily become closed in on certain things. “Do it again”…you know the mantra. Eventually the parent needs to say no and take a break from paddy-cake. This is good for children.

I believe it is important for children to be surrounded by beautiful things: paintings, music, and literature. Variety is important too, balanced with the familiar. How often do we think of the quality of the media they consume? Do we continue with trite tunes and cartoons because they’re “educational” and children like them? Studies have found that those who read more classic fiction showed greater empathy than those who read less classic fiction. Education can also take place through conversation when encountering art, whatever form it may be. I do not know at what age the child starts talking back when the characters on children’s shows ask a question, but mine have yet to do it.

We are called to elevate our senses above the brute beast. Art has a transcendent quality we desperately need in this busy, anxiety-laden culture. Art points us to God. It shows us something an animal could never organize or create. If you want to give your children, Frozen, do it, but also consider sitting them down to Ernest and Celestine, a French film whose animation is like a moving water-color painting. If you love Idina Menzel, Broadway singing, or R&B singing, fine. But also consider giving them “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” without words (called Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”). Have children’s songs but consider orchestral arrangements. If children’s music makes you crazy, as it does for lots of parents, consider oldies. “We all live in a Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles or “The Watermelon Song” by Tennessee Ford are great for children’s appetites but adult friendly. When children ask for endless repetition, just say no and offer them something new. See what happens.

Why lower our offerings for children? Let’s elevate it and in their growing ask them to grow in appreciation of the things we chose to expose them to. Hard to think of what to use? That is the Disney machine’s marketing arm’s goal. If you don’t know they can tell you, then buy their product.

Don’t let your culture be determined by advertising and what the store’s say it’s time for. We can do more! And I believe it will help our children just that much more to thrive, imagine and create.

The need for moments of transcendence

Have you ever experience a moment of exquisite beauty?

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You walk into a building, a piece of music, and have to catch your breath.

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You look around you, bewildered at the sight, pause and take in the sounds that are foreign and yet familiar.

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You feel your heart lifted, your thoughts quiet, your soul settles on a higher plane. These are the effects of transcendence.

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We need to experience moments of transcendence from time to time. Is not life bitter? It rains, the clouds overwhelm the visual appeal we may or may not have achieved at in our homes. The crumbs on the floor, the clean and dirty clothes scattered throughout the preschool kid’s room after she has learned she can move her chair, climb up, and empty and all the contents of her dresser; the crying, yours and your infant’s; forgetting to take our the garbage can; wiping noses, rushing to wipe the nose before the toddler uses his hand over and over and over again; stepping unintentionally in puddles (when it’s intentional that is okay). Life is muddy, mundane, monotonous. Fish spend every waking moment looking for food. What else have we?

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We need to be reminded we are not merely men, not merely animals. We have souls, spirits, like the angels and can be lifted up to where the angels are. Why else do we need God? The animals worship God by their very existence. They are not aware. We need something more. It is not enough to just show up and bless him with our presence (he’s just happy I’m here). No! We need to turn out thoughts, our mind, out intentionality, because we are, unlike the brutes, able to will) to God. We must give to God.

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How can I be drawn to give this gift of myself and my spirit if the liturgy merely inspires the brute and not the spirit? Modern liturgical music and architecture are designed so we feel comfortable. Words anyone can sing, therefore no one sings. Melodies that take us back to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Homiletic anecdotes I read in a chain email eighteen years ago when the Internet was up and coming.

But if I walk into the Church building and it is other-worldly, meaning it reminds me of a place not of this world…Heaven, I am reminded that there is more to my life than the again and again of life and family. My life becomes imbued with a sense of wonder and transcendence. It becomes easier to move through the tasks at hand with the recent memory of that moment in my mind. Just as it is not enough to have only heard sweet nothings from my spouse on our wedding day but never again, I need frequent reminders because I am human. Why begrudge each other that? Are we afraid that because we have lost a sense of transcendence that others will not be drawn to it. Did the devil creep when we whispered to ourselves “I feel so small.” Did he creep in and add “because you are nothing” and then block any of the beautiful thoughts that could follow that, “I am nothing, but yet God still cares for me, died for me, created me, protected me.”

It is happening in some places. New churches are being built. Times are changing.

I live in a predominantly rural area. It is common for inhabitants of rural areas to instinctively find the arts superfluous. My father agrees every child should learn music because he believes what he read that learning music early on enhances one’s ability to learn the other subjects. But at the same time, he can say schools should only teach the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. So while our family is being blessed by attending a parish that actually wants my husband’s musical gifts, the memory is still fresh of encountering again and again a “what’s-the-point” attitude from two parishes where he was previously employed.

What’s the point? Perhaps we need to experience more of it in order to know it.

Christmas Traditions

And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! – Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

I wrote previously about Black Friday traditions in my family. Growing up, my mother and father both worked full time and I was a latch key child. There was much independence, which after 5th grade meant, much television watching. We did not hold many traditions. Every Advent and Lent we went to a penance service. It was in junior high I learned confession was available outside penance services as well. For the majority of my childhood Christmas mornings, my sister and I woke very early, as did my father. We were allowed to open our stocking and waited until my mother rose to open our presents. We opened in a round robin fashion, taking the time to thank the giver. Breakfast followed, then 11am mass. Once I was old enough, on Christmas Eve, we watched a movie, went to sleep for a couple hours and then woke to attend Midnight Mass. My mother converted to Catholicism after she married my father. My father was the typical pre-Vatican II Catholic, devout, faithful, moral, fell away for early adulthood, returned upon marriage. My extended family is not Catholic. Some are Protestant. Most are not.

Thanksgiving was typically held at my aunt’s house in Redding. Christmas was usually celebrated separate from the day at my uncle’s house outside Santa Cruz. Their house, nestled among redwood trees, with its wood-burning stoves and quiet, wet location, still feels like Christmas to me. The family is small, children are few, and once the children were grown, it seems the demands for tradition dwindled and gradually fell away.

Camping locations changed, different parties hosted different holidays, I grew up and wanted to host as well. What traditions are left?

My father has never denied the existence of Santa Claus. He has neither denied the existence of fairies or little men in refrigerators who turn the light on when you open the door. He has a touch of the poet in him. The thing to understand about poets is that there is a touch of madness and a touch of magic in how they see the world. This makes for beautiful art, whether it is technically correct will require other personality facets.

My mom does not have the touch of the poet in her mind. She is pragmatic and driven. My sister does not have the touch of the poet, she is fact seeking and direct. I have it. The man I married has it. It is the quality about him, along with faith, that I need the most in order to be married to him.

I would never consider it a lie to share with my children the Santa Claus tradition. I think people who think it is a lie, probably, lack the touch of the poet. How do you explain to a cynical society that magic still exists in the world?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

Telling children Santa Claus and fairies exist keeps fertile the already fertile soil of a child’s mind for the understanding of angels, the communion of saints, heavenly gates and the Eucharist. It trains their minds in receptivity of spiritual things which we can understand in greater complexity as we grow older.

What are our traditions? My husband and I are developing them. Old movies will be part of it, as will stop motion cartoons. The Advent wreath is important to us. We will maintain a focus on this time as preparation for Christmas, rather than Christmas, but without being so stogy that we can’t also enjoy the things of Christmas now. Advent isn’t Lent after all, though it does demand some penitence on our part in order to truly prepare.

I have the first phase decorations up: winter, Advent, things that reflect warmth and coziness.

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On Gaudete Sunday I will hang the stockings, put out the Crèche; we will buy our tree and trim it. On Christmas Eve, a Santa figurine will come out, as will Baby Jesus to complete the Crèche.

This year we attended the Christmas Festival and parade in this little town of ours.

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The children met Santa for the first time. They were not yet ready to sit on his lap and tell him their Christmas wishes. But they met him, albeit apprehensively.

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Consumerism does not have to define our culture and our practices. Just because every store and advertisement tells me it is Christmas does not mean it really is, just like Charlie Brown taught us.

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Religion can drive culture. Families can drive culture as well. It is our intention to be let these factors be part of our family culture. We can’t ignore that consumerism does largely drive the society we live in. We don’t have to let it define us, so we will work with it, not ignore it. Every year this will unfold more and more. I’m so glad to see how it’s shaping up.

Unfriending the Stranger: on the need more stratification in relationships

Have we lost the distinction between friend, stranger and acquaintance? It seems like it goes without saying, yet I wonder if the value of boundaries is becoming more and more lost in our culture.

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Real Simple panelists proposed five “old-timey” traditions they would like to see brought back. One panelist while proposing the return of titles to identify distance where distance exists snuck in a secondary proposal to bring back the handshake and hug a lot less. Hugging. I enjoyed youth group as a junior high student because it provided me the opportunity to hug the cute freshman in the group. As I grew older, I liked hugging less and less and found it more and more in all circumstances. My hairdresser, who I like very much, gives me a hug as I leave and while in experience it doesn’t seem so bizarre, saying it out loud points out the strangeness of it.

We call random connections on Facebook our “friends.” A friend denotes an intimate, someone with whom I share similar goals, views and confidences. On Facebook, these are merely connections who see what I post. It’s like we opt to be bodies occupying a room where I can hear and see what the other does. I can choose to leave the room anytime. Online we call that “unfriending.” Whether we like it or not, “unfriending” becomes laden with emotion. Rather than “unfriend” someone, which rejects the person, I can just choose not to “follow” him or her. On other social media sites I have “followers.” At best a follower denotes someone who follows me around. Some would see it as a disciple. As I said before, it’s merely being in the same room, or in terms of blog websites, becoming a subscriber. The terms make it so very personal.

Boundaries are diminished. Couples couple on their first date or even without a date but at a party. Rather than going out on dates to get to know people, we “go out” and enter a committed intimate relationship in order to get to know the person.

If everyone is my friend, if everyone is in my intimate circle of hug receivers, then I must up the ante to show those who are truly on the inner circle. I will have to marry an intimate friend, opposite sex or not, or even myself, because we must be allowed to love. We must be allowed public recognition of our uniquely close relationship.

If I referred to acquaintances, or they referred to me,  by my title (Mrs.) then an intimate would be indicated by calling me by my first name. Friendships would be indicated by first name + spending time together. Deeper friendships would be indicated by first name + spending time together + spending time with my family + a hug upon greeting or saying good bye. Marriage would be indicated by all those things and so much more.

Legally society is not greatly stratified. There is marriage. There are civil unions in some cases. There are common law marriages. And then there is nothing. I read once (I apologize for not remembering the source, though I believe it published through First Things) a proposal for legal recognition of more types of relationships, without the need to call it marriage. If two sisters live together and care for each other in their old age, there is no legal recognition given to that relationship. If one sister has an estranged child, that child has more claim than the sister who has done everything for her.

So I am proposing more steps. They need not all be romantic as in marriage because not all intimate love is romantic. Our society is hyper-sexualized and would question the nature of the relationship between those two sisters. They may just be intimate friends sans physical intimacy. Such a thing does exist.

Now, I live in California. I know my ideas/discussions here reflect that. The coasts strive to be avante garde. California is both cutting edge on cultural trends and extremely casual. I recognize what I see taking place in cultural trends does not reflect the whole of the United States, although I do think times are a-changin’ and we’re all affected to some degree, the coasts (and college towns) likely being the most extreme.

It starts with one person and how he or she builds their relationships, then teaches a group, perhaps a youth group or their group of children. Christianity has, throughout history, functions as a subculture, something counter-cultural and a little underground. We’ve tried courtship (which in this discussion means you are either my friend or marriage potential, little in between), and for many, it has been found lacking. Maybe a new approach is worth looking at.

Black Friday: A look ahead

Black Friday. That ominous day for some, a thrilling adventure for others. Every Thanksgiving we made the eternal long drive to my aunt’s house in Redding. In reality the drive took three hours. We spent several days there. Thanksgiving was spent cooking, sitting around, eating, watching professional and college football. That evening, individuals waded through the thick packet of advertisements and joked about what ridiculous toy they would go after, just for the hunt. Friday morning, more ads were gone through. The gentlemen left early for the hunting ground, returned, and lounged around the house. Later on the ladies left and went to departments stores, a discount store with a little bit of everything, and lunch. It was relaxing, fun and not too expensive. We’ve lost most of our traditions but Black Friday, for me, remains a day, stress-free and nostalgic, with deals to be had.

 

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m an extrovert. I like the crowds, feeling like I’m in the wild, and I like the sentiment it brings me: the memories, the mess of ads on the dining table Friday morning along with turkey leftovers for lunch. It’s like that for a lot of people.

But Black Friday can be an ugly day. It sounds like an ugly day, named after Black Tuesday and the stock market crash. Who would want to join in that? So stores began the rumor that it is named “black” because the stores “go into the black” aka, go out of debt. Myth! No, it’s a day that many feel demonstrates what is most regrettable about American culture: materialism, madness, greed.

Now Black Friday encroaches on our whole weekend. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday (which I whole-heartedly support), Cyber Monday, and, what-to-call-it, throw-out-tradition Thursday? I feel that retailers have an amazing amount of power in American society, through advertising, through the raging desire to score a deal. Thanksgiving, once a day of family feasting, once a day of revelry, once a day of sitting around a television watching football, once a day of traditional gender roles (women in the kitchen, men around the aforementioned TV), once a day of mythological pilgrims and Indians and Mayflowers (remember that one?), retailers do their best to usurp every opportunity possible to “make a buck, make a buck.”

So social media groups start up, boycott this, boycott that. Because we couldn’t just…stay home that day, right? We have to throw out the entire thing. I love point made that movie theaters have for ages been open on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day, as are drug stores, hospitals and all kinds of organizations and businesses. So regarding the complaint about employees being with families, is it fair to complain now when so many other employees have been through it for ages? I’m not saying Thanksgiving should become a shopping day, I don’t think it should be, but we should look at the big picture.

I do often wonder if we only perceive society coming to this. I mean, communities used to be driven by communal groups within their community. So what you knew is what your neighbors knew and what the banner across Main street said. Now, what do we know? We know what we choose to read online (social media, carefully selected new sites that align with our views or at least do not wildly offend them) and whatever is advertised. Speculation of the number of advertisements the average American is exposed to each day varies widely. Needless to say, it is a lot, especially with widespread advertising online. We are again and again picking up messages that shopping and sales are where the activity is at on Thanksgiving, no longer at dinner. For myself, I think this impression is caused more by the uproar over stores opening on Thanksgiving than the stores themselves. For good or ill, social media is a powerful thing.

I prefer the positive fight. How about, instead of “Boycott Black Thursday,” ending the day with a block party? Imagine if we connected more deeply with our communities with big family celebrations, church gatherings or, as I mentioned already, block parties. Is it simple? No. Are our gatherings set up for it? Likely not. But it’s a good idea, right? I’m sure it would help if family lived nearby or something. We’re so huddled into our little homes in our little suburbs that we rarely see what happens outside. So we see advertisements and group after group lamenting the loss of American culture through shopping, evil materialism at every turn. It’s a problem, but there is a vacuum in our society and retailers are just making the most of it. We have to build up society if we want to save it. We can’t do it if we won’t sit outside a spell and see our neighbors.

So take it to the front porch this year (if it doesn’t snow). I hope you won’t be sorry. God bless you and your November. Let the holiday madness begin!

All Souls’ Day Celebration

I love Halloween. I love the controversy and the conversations. For some reason, I’ve been comfortable with the macabre for a long time. Cemeteries were never creepy. Post-conversion, I thought it was beautiful to sit in a cemetery and just soak in the awareness of the souls in Heaven and the need to pray for those in Purgatory.

As a child living in the country, there was no trick or treating and how I longed for it. We dressed on our costumes, always homemade, went to mass, and went to the party after mass for games and candy. In vain my parents tried to appease my trick or treating desires, but alas, no one was home. The porch lights of those country homes were off.

Now I am married with children of my own. My mother makes the costumes and I put together my husband’s costume. Two years now we’ve done themes for him and the children. Last year, the Scarecrow, the Lion and Dorothy were represented.

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This year, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck joyfully joined Robin Hood (not pictured) for a rainy evening of trick or treating.

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Along with Trick or Treating on Halloween, on All Saints’ Day I managed to take the children on a Saints Pilgrimage. We drove to the nearest church and I explained the saints who were represented by the statues at that Church. The children seemed to enjoy it even though memories were a little thin at the end of the day. For the second time, our family hosted an All Souls’ Day Celebration on November 2nd.

The table features ghost and pumpkin cookies, chili, bratwurst, and clementine “pumpkins.”

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Of special note were the soul cakes made by my husbands. In centuries past, the poor went from door to door on All Souls’ Day and in exchange for praying for the family’s beloved dead, they received soul cakes, a slightly sweet treat (one of origins of our practice of Trick or Treating).

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The table features white, browns and orange with white mums all around.

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My husband also stirred up his “witch’s brew” in our brand new $5 punch bowl from the Hope Chest.

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The party was great fun. As the evening drew on, we built a bonfire (another tradition in All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls’ Day revelry), bobbed for apples and enjoyed some squash bowling (butternut squash as the bowling pins, likely not a centuries-old tradition).

When the sun went down, the church bells “rang” (digitally at least) and we prayed for our dearly departed:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
R. And let the perpetual light shine upon them.

All: And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen.

There are so many fabulous and festive traditions out there! We could have made it more macabre without abandoning Catholic culture (Sedlec Ossuary, anyone?) but this year it shaped up differently. Looking forward to next year. Restoring Catholic tradition, one party at a time!