Cultural Touchstones in Lent

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


I hear in the niche world of young, homeschooling, Catholic families, a new buzzword: liturgical living. Liturgical living is a way of bringing traditions of the liturgy into the home with the goal of furthering ones cultural and religious heritage.

Societies were once overflowing with cultural touchstones, those sensory or narrative moments handed down and continued generation after generation. It is formed by history, climate, agriculture, immigration, and religion.

The almost ancient film “Queen Christina” (1933) explains, “It’s all a question of climate. You can’t serenade a woman in a snowstorm…Love, as we understand it, is a technique that must be developed in hot countries.”

Some touchstones have the power to travel, uniting a common people in the midst of diaspora. The people recognize each other as they identify evidence of those touchstones. Admit one’s culture and the interlocutors feel invited to speak in the hidden language using the terms and references of their shared heritage. These touchstones become a sort of code, informing those who might otherwise feel alone, to know they are not.

Ash Wednesday, the opening to the liturgical season of Lent, is one such day. In school, in business, at the store, Catholics can be identified by the strange black smudge on their forehead (if they went to mass that morning).

In America, the degree of assimilation varies. Give it the right elements, like the chill of a northern climate, and cultures begin to change. Touchstones fade as new ones take their place. Unfortunately, the popular virtues of our culture tend towards individualism, rather than a shared heritage or experience. In generations past, many made great efforts to hide their heritage, trying to Americanize and assimilate. A piece was lost. Now, some cultures fear the repercussions of fully expressing the depth and breadth of their cultural and religious practices.

Having worked in the world, I am accustomed to adapting my language to fit the setting. But today is a day I cannot conform. We are Catholic; the sign on my forehead tells me so.




Thus begins the Lent for “high church” Christians. There was a time in America when the Friday meal special included fish and the soup du jour was meatless. Now Meatless Mondays are an internet trend. Fasting occurred on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for Catholics. Muslims and Jews observe other days and seasons for fasting. Now, Intermittent Fasting (IF) trends the blogosphere.

Health, gluten-gree, organic, vegan, fair trade movements become new cultural touchstones. They are the way many modern-day Americans relate to each other. They recognize the bag from Everlane, the shoes from Tom’s, the reusable grocery bag made in Ecuador. A left-over Obama sticker, a red Trump hat signals other cultures. Even if religion has largely exited the public square, cultural touchstones remain, but perhaps of a different culture than the ones our parents intended to raise us in.

How do these cultures develop? They must be handed down. They are handed down by Babushkas, by internet gurus, by religious hierarchy.

Ash Wednesday takes place forty days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. The liturgical season changes on Holy Thursday, a day drawn from the traditions of the Jewish Passover. Passover is celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the 15th day of Nissan, based on a lunar calendar. Easter, a moveable feast in our Gregorian calendar, falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

If we are willing to see it, even disparate cultures may share touchstones. Christ’s Last Supper was a seder. To enter into that tradition, Christians can learn from Jews what the seder is, what it means, and why it matters. It has endured over three thousand years, a trifle longer than Meatless Mondays.

At the seder, the question is asked four times: What makes this night different from all nights?

The traditions are treasures of our heritage. Some will be abandoned, some will evolve, some ought to continue. But without asking the question, we let them fall aside, we change the culture, without ever meaning to do so.

Decoration Day

Memorial Day…Decoration Day. This day goes back to the period following the Civil War when the women of those who died in battle championed a national day to honor the dead of war.

Decoration day. A day to visit the graveside of the soldier lost, decorate with flowers and eventually flags. Family members traveled far and wide to the graveside of their sons and fathers. They gathered, picnicked, and spent the day in celebration of courage and bravery.

So this ritual entered the canon of America’s civic religion of patriotism. Later called Memorial Day, it morphed into a day of togetherness, relaxation, picnics in the modern sense called barbecue, and a break from work to celebrate something bigger than ourselves, whether we realize it or not.

I survey the scene of flags across the cemetery decorating the graves of those who have died. As a child, we often came here. The women came. My father stayed at home since it was not his father who had died and was buried in this place. My grandfather’s grave was next to one of those great trees and cement benches. I sat while my mother and grandmother fussed over his grave. They brought a bucket with water and flowers, clippers, and pruning sheers. What did I know? I may have been 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I sat and daydreamed about what the World War I veteran was like next door to my grandfather as my mother and grandmother clipped and cleaned and placed the flowers in the vase, filling it with water, and dumping the rest in some reverent place like the cement beneath our car.

My grandfather did not die in battle. His was a less abrupt death. He was a veteran, who fought in World War II on the Pacific, so Memorial Day is not for him. Memorial Day is Decoration Day, the day to in some tangible way, honor the sacrifice of those who died in battle.

The stores would have us decorate our bodies with patriotic clothes, decorate our homes with bunting and paper lanterns in red, white, and blue, change our outdoor couch pillows to flag themed fabrics, and decorate our food to be festive.

For those who feel intensely the meaning of today, for those who fought and watched their comrades die, or heard later of their demise but lived to tell others, for those whose family members did not return, for those very nearly did not return themselves…thank you for sacrifice. We must remember those who have died and those left behind. For them and for you, we are grateful.

Let us remember that while carefree BBQ’s may seem disrespectful, that this tradition comes from the tradition in the history of Decoration Day: togetherness, picnics and decorating with the flag. We must balance the modern traditions with the heart of the day, not the commercial push. This is the spirituality of our country after all: to honor sacrifice, bravery and the spirit that does not quit but gives all one can until one can give no more.

Wherever you live, likely, a cemetery is not far away. Visit, take it in, say a prayer or give a thought of gratitude related to what you see there. Or nod in the general direction. Know what you gathered for, even if there is no one in your family who died in battle. Whichever war, whatever stance on the war, we can recognize the goodness of those on the ground and what they gave. I hope it can inspire us to give a little more ourselves.

An Easter recap

We’re meeting milestones here. For the first time since our eldest was born, I made it to Good Friday celebrations. Grace abounded with the relaxed attitude I brought with me (unusual, I can assure you). It was beautiful to see my son venerate the cross.

On Holy Saturday I struggled with my husband’s absence while he earned our daily bread. I did a few things around the house but mostly attempted to let go of whatever I had planned to do and spend time from my kids, to keep them from crying.

We began two new traditions for Holy Saturday. During the day we decorated plain thrift store Easter baskets.

IMG_6732And we had a bonfire. A Catholic tradition which dates back centuries, still lived through the Easter fire at the commencement of the Easter vigil mass, we decided to bring some liturgical elements to the celebrations within our domestic church. My husband chanted the opening to the exultant and I read the epistle and gospel while the kids hid behind me from the fire. That night my son coughed badly, I think from the smoke. We’ll work on that next year.

Easter morning my children woke and began eating breakfast. The door bell rang. “Who could that be?” Halfway to the door my four-year exclaims, “maybe it’s the Easter bunny!” Gifts abounded. Earlier this week I said to my husband, “I think one of my love languages is gifts.” He responded definitively, “No, I think your love language is gifts.”

IMG_6746We got ready for mass. First things first, if you know what I mean.IMG_6754

IMG_6758After an exhausting mass, everyone went out for an egg hunt.




They found.


They collected.


They delighted.


They ate.


We used natural food dyes for the eggs so they were safe for consumption. The baby’s egg above features a bright yellow hue made possible by the generous contribution of tumeric. Below you see an egg dyed with chopped beets. Red eggs were traditionally used to symbolize the blood of Christ. With the bounty I made egg salad sandwiches for lunch.


For our table, I used a traditional white tablecloth with a casual indigo runner. I added porcelain bunny and egg figurines,


flowers from our garden in thrift store bud vases,


and Pottery Barn bunny cupcakes holders


(which never hold cupcakes in my home).


I chose to keep the table simple, with pieces spread out in order to easily accommodate a family style meal.

IMG_6805While my parents enjoyed Easter dinner with my sister outside Kansas City, we entertained my grandmother and parish priest. Two or three days prior to Easter we radically changed the Easter menu from this to a traditional lamb fare. I suppose the lobster tails will just have to wait for Mother’s Day or our anniversary.

For our Easter feast we served:

Lamb with Aromatic Greens

Review: would absolutely make this dish again. It was amazing.

Greek-style braised beans

Review: I really hated this and would never make it again.

Homemade Challah

From The Breadbaker’s Apprentice

Review: It was amazing, but my husband’s homemade breads always are.

Served with Clos du Bios, Cabernet Sauvignon

Frozen Lemon Mousse

Review: Delicious! We substitute grapefruit juice because we have an abundance. It was heavier than I imagined but still tasty and light compared to many other dessert.

I hope you all had an amazing and blessed Easter!

The need for moments of transcendence

Have you ever experience a moment of exquisite beauty?


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


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


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

Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse

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?


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.


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.

Thoughts from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch.1

As I did before with Gift from the Sea, I would like to share with you my reflections following a reading of Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by Pope Benedict XVI. I am embarking on this reading through our virtual book club: Well Read Mom. As before, the plain font will be quotations or direct references, the words in italics are my reflections because somehow italics seem to better represent the dynamism of my thoughts (she said, tongue-in-cheek).

The preface: The first question in exegeses is what is it saying historically. The second is how does this concern me?

“He is one among others. He is one like us…His origin marks him out as one like any other.”

If this is true of Christ, he is like me than I can look at the same questions put to him as to myself.

Chapter 1: “The Roman judge asks Jesus where he is from in order to understand who he really is and what he wants.”

Psychoanalytic theory sees this question as fundamental to answering the who-am-I question today. Identifying the moment of original drama can lead to a catharsis, a sudden release of emotion or built of tension, created through holding these thoughts in the unconscious parts of our psyche. Family systems theory follows the same thoughts but much more above the surface. I take on a role to fill out the balance in my family. Strict behaviorism sees the question of “where do I come from” as irrelevant to progress. It does not matter how I was trained, only that I have been trained. Solution-focus theory is much the same.  Cognitive theory will find some value in identifying the origin of the lesson, where I learned this irrational belief. Understanding the origin of the irrational belief may create opportunities to dispute it by find evidence or alternative explanation for what I believe about myself.

This concept is not foreign to psychology, but deeply integrated. Where do I come from…who I am…what I want. This is how I discover what is most important to me, what is most important to my clients, and what will motivate us to move forward.

The genealogy from Matthew, begins with Abraham and leads us to Jesus “is open to universality—through Abraham, blessing comes to all.”

Christ is more than an image of myself. To project that image of me and call it god is to make an idol, fashioning him like myself. God’s otherness abounds. He has a mission beyond me. Since I have no Jewish heritage in my, it is because  his mission beyond me that I am part of it at all.

The genealogy from Matthew: is the Gospel of Christ the King: the whole of history looks towards him whose throne is to endure for ever.”

Christ is king. We can be drawn close to the infant, but we must also see the man, God, the king. “We have come to worship,” (Mt 2.2) how much I need this longing in my heart, to worship someone infinitely greater than myself.

The genealogy of Luke: “Jesus takes upon himself the whole of humanity, the whole history of man, and he gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence.”

“Those who believe in Jesus enter through faith into Jesus’ unique new origin, and they receive this origin as their own.

This is profound. I was young when I fell in love with Christ, but it marked the beginning for me. Isn’t that how love is? It felt like my life had not yet begun until it began in Christ. And it was a turning point. The old life is left behind and a new life, with vision, with a path, with purpose is laid out.

Everything unfolded following that new beginning. When I met my husband, the plan continued to unfold. The birth of our first child, deciding not to pursue my doctorate, to return my town of origin in order to be closer to my family of origin. It is the path laid out in the story I wrote, The Girl and Her King. I used to believe everything was a sign. Eventually I began to see that many things were just life, just reasonable consequences. I did not lose the vision that somehow a wisdom is written in through it all, that there is a cosmic purpose. It is written in Christ for all of history. It is beautiful to behold because in this meaning we find we are very, very small. History, the story, life is not determined by me and my actions, because there is something so much greater than me here. However, that Someone cared enough to write me into it, to make me part of this universal cosmic plan. God thought it more complete to have me in it than out of it. That makes me feel very good indeed.

The self-esteem movement falls short. “How do you feel about yourself?” That the answer to that question should determine my well-being is the concept of self-esteem. Real confidence comes from accomplishing real things, being successful in real tasks and real relationships. Self-worth or value comes from recognizing the truth. Where do you come from?

I can understand my feelings toward myself when I consider how I was taught to regard myself by my parents. “When a girl dresses up, she seeks to be told that she is beautiful. When a boy flails a sword or dresses up as Spiderman, he wants to be told he is an extraordinary person, that he is capable of saving the world.”  “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). God is love. The family is the school of love. Our parents are our first teachers in the truth of who we are. How fascinating it is for me to have met someone who has “high self-esteem” who does not seem to doubt herself or her beauty, because despite his shortcomings as a man, her father always told her, “you are beautiful.”

The question of who he is and where is he from are inseparably linked.

Returning to that question: where do you come from? I continue to turn this concept in my mind. The two questions are inseparably linked. I do not only come from my family. I do not only come from my genealogical tree or my cultural heritage. I come from the Church. In my baptism I became part of this great tree. But then, I do not only come from Catholic culture. I come from God. God made me. He is my father. Where do you come from? I am like Christ. He is like me. Where do you come from? I have been part of the mind of God. He knew me before I was born and established my place in history. What that will be, I do not know. I have free will and can choose to continue walking along this path. As I walk, it will continue to unfold.

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.






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.


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.





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.


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.

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.


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



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.”





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).


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




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


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.


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!