Monday, February 24, 2014

Running Toward Lent

Every year about this time, I begin yearning for Lent. It can't get here fast enough for me. I always feel as if I'm hung all about with rags and in need of washing, and I can't begin to get cleaned up until Ash Wednesday.

You would think that I could just go ahead and get a head start on things, but it just doesn't work. It seems to me, and I'm pretty sure I'm correct in thinking so, that the season of Lent enables us to do things we could never do before. Suddenly, I can go without salt, or get up early to pray, or quit playing Free Cell, or all sorts of things that sound good like a good idea, but never quite pan out in Ordinary Time. Things that seemed impossible before become almost easy. I'm not saying that it's easy to not eat salt, but that it's easier to persevere in not eating salt. (You can see that I'm being haunted by the specter of salt-less days.)

There is one thing that is really difficult for me in Lent, and that is meatless Fridays. This is peculiar because: a) I actually like meatless meals and it's not unusual for me to go without meat more than one day a week, and b) I hardly ever eat meat on Fridays anyway. Still, Fridays in Lent seem to come with their own penitential burden. For five days a week for eight years, Bill and I passed by a restaurant that was cooking barbeque on our way home. On 253 days a year, we sailed past without even noticing. Then came the first Friday in Lent and we would both say at the same moment, "Oooh, that smells sooo good," and thus it went through Good Friday. 

I'll also add--just to make your Lent a little more punishing--that while I was looking on the USCCB website for the officially worded rules about fast and abstinence for the bulletin, I found a Q&A page that went counter to what I've heard about Sundays in Lent in recent years. 
Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.
Try not to hate me. Actually, it doesn't say that you must give up those things on Sunday, but still I will have it in the back of mind nagging at me.

In case anyone is interested, there is a link to the meditations on the Stations of the Cross that I wrote in 2012 on the sidebar.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Recent Comments

Google Blogger doesn't seem to offer a "Recent Comments" widget anymore. Does anyone know how I could find one?


Thursday, February 20, 2014


A long time ago, it must be more than 25 years, I was having a casual discussion with some friends, and one of them mentioned Septuagesima Sunday. Although I was 18 when the Mass of Paul VI was promulgated, and although the word septuagesima was familiar to me, I don't remember ever knowing what it was about until that day. I'm still quite far from being an expert on the subject. All I remember of that conversation was my friend's saying that Septuagesima was the period before Lent when we examined our consciences to find what our sins were, repented for our sins, and decided what we would do during Lent to make reparation for them. This is probably a very inadequate paraphrase of what he actually said, but since he sometimes reads this blog, he is welcome to correct me if he wishes.

 At the time, I was really taken with this concept, thought it would be a great practice, and filed it away for future consideration--and it has pretty much been gathering dust ever since. Last year I thought I would dust it off, do some research, and write a blog post about it. Unfortunately, remembering incorrectly that it was the Sunday before Lent and not three Sundays before Lent as it actually is, I waited until about the Wednesday before Holy Week to do my research and found that I was woefully behindhand, and decided to wait until this year.

As the mathematical geniuses among you have probably figured out, I am still quite tardy, but since we still have almost two weeks left until Ash Wednesday, I thought it might be worth the effort to go ahead and write something. I'm pretty sure I won't remember in a timely manner next year, either, so there's no reason to wait. 

I've had the idea in the back of my mind, but have been too busy to write, and then I found that someone had done the work for me. While looking around Dappled Things, after going there to read Sally Thomas's excellent poem, I found Roseanne T. Sullivan's article, Septuagesima. It's very informative and thorough, and if you have any interest at all in the subject, I would suggest that you proceed to the article without delay. I don't really have anything to add to what Ms. Sullivan has written, but I will quote the passage entitled, How Are We to Keep Septuagesima, which to my way of thinking is the most important part.
Dom Guéranger also tells us how we are supposed to keep Septuagesima: 
• By entering into the spirit of the Church in sober, mournful, preparation for the penitence of Lent • By growing in holy fear of God • By considering what original sin and our own sins have done to deserve God’s judgments • By rising up from indifference • By realizing our need for the saving sacrifice of Christ that we will remember in great detail during Lent 
“After having spent the three weeks of Septuagesima in meditating upon our spiritual infirmities, and upon the wounds caused in us by sin, – we should be ready to enter upon the penitential season, which the Church has now begun. We have now a clearer knowledge of the justice and holiness of God, and of the dangers that await an impenitent soul; and, that our repentance might be earnest and lasting, we have bade farewell to the vain joys and baubles of the world. Our pride has been humbled by the prophecy, that these bodies would soon be like the ashes that wrote the memento of death upon our foreheads.” – Dom Guéranger in “The Practice of Lent” in The Liturgical Year.
Last night, I found that my friend Craig at All Manner of Thing has also been thinking about Septuagesima, and has written a short blog post about it with a link to yet another, though quite different take on the season.

Thomas Cooper Gotch - Alleluia 1896
No more of this for a while.
By the way, if you aren't familiar with Dappled Things it's well worth a look.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Simone Weil, Pope Francis and the Three Young Men

Simone Weil
Several weeks ago, my friend Toby posted this quote from a blogpost at Fare Forward: A Christian Review of Ideas.
According to Weil, the essential act of justice is affirmation that the sacred, innocent point in another human being’s heart still exists, an affirmation given through simple attention, which answers the other’s silent cry not to be hurt. This look of love, which is not blind to force’s sway over the other, combats his darkness, even before anything else is done for him. 
Weil insists that a true act of attention is something we have to learn, and practice. Real affirmation of another’s existence costs something, especially in the case of the afflicted, since their humanity is under attack. For the unpracticed, it is often impossible to discern the sacred point in someone who is afflicted, or to believe in its presence. 
Weil turns to beauty to teach us how to pay attention. Beauty gives us confidence that the childish cry still exists in those who are afflicted. Something beautiful radiates a light that helps us to distinguish what is precious from what is hideous in another, and comforts us when our attention costs more than we are able to give.
What a serious responsibility this is, and how often I fail to recognize it, or to act on it when I do. How often it seems that my attention will cost more than I am able to give, and so I fail to even try to give it. How often my own hideousness prevents me from even considering that there might be something precious to be sought in another. It's so overwhelming to realize that every day I might be continually called to dredge up the psychological and spiritual, not the mention the physical, energy to meet this challenge. How does one summon up the strength to persevere?

When I first read this quote, it immediately reminded me of a work of fiction that I recently read in which the protagonist is charged with finding that "sacred, innocent point" in the heart of a man who has given himself entirely to the evil one so that he can be given another chance. The person who is called to the task is a young girl who could not possibly accomplished the deed on her own, but who has previously fallen into the hands of the living God and found it fearful, yes, but then filled with light, and joy. She also experiences a sadness that she has to return to the world, and yet, when she does, she finds herself changed, a bearer of the light.

We can only find the courage to stare into the depths of another's darkness when we have first been willing to cast ourselves into the burning abyss of God's love. Terrifying though it is, and it is terrifying, we find that it is the only truly safe place, and we find ourselves walking around, accompanied by angels and singing the praises of the Lord like the three young men in the fiery furnace. I've always found strength and encouragement in their response to Nebuchadnezzar:
If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, you should know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.
Instead of showing their fortitude, I'm afraid, we often stand around the edge of the pit in agony, wringing our hands, and we risk sharing the fate of the men who were devoured by the flames.

I imagine that the sojourn in the fiery furnace was a glorious experience for Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego--akin to that of Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. I was praying the Luminous Mysteries the other day and it struck me that for some reason, when I come to the fourth mystery, I always think of it in terms of my own transfiguration, but that what I should really be thinking about is the fact that we need to constantly remind ourselves of whatever glory the Lord has revealed to us in our most fervent moments so that we won't get lost in the darkness. In this life, we can't stay in the burning abyss, or the fiery furnace or the on the mountain top for long, but our time there is meant to change us, and prepare us to transmit that light into the depths of another's darkness.

Shortly after I read that quote from Simone Weil, I came across this one from Pope Francis which reiterates what she says. I printed it out and put it on the bulletin board in my office. It is as good a way to close this post as I could imagine.
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

When You Live in Mississippi ...

You have to take your snow where you find it.

In a couple of days, these might become mudmen, like this shmooman from a couple of years ago.

He actually started out in the classic snowman shaped--although very grassy and leafy--but he schlumped a bit everyday. I used to look forward to driving by on my way to work everyday to see how he had morphed. 

If you don't remember, or never knew, this is what a shmoo looks like.

Snow me the way to go home.

This is my favorite snowman picture that I ever took. The best snowman picture ever is on Sally's blog. If you haven't seen it click here, and scroll down for a long time and it will eventually appear in the sidebar.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

St. Josephine Bakhita

Today, February 8, is the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who is one of my two favorites saints, the other being St. Martin de Porres. I don't have much time to write, so I was going to link to a review that I wrote of her biography, Bakhita: From Slave to Saint, by Robert Italo Zanini, which I read a couple of months ago; however, I find that I did not ever write the review, so I will just say a few words. 

Bakhita was born in Darfur in 1869. When she was about 8--she didn't really know how old she was--she was kidnapped by slave traders. Not only do we not know her exact age, we don't know her real name either. Bakhita, Lucky, was the name that was given to her by the slave traders.

After having belonged to several masters, some who treated her kindly and some who tortured her mercilessly, she found herself in a Canossian convent in Italy where she was accompanying the daughter of her current master, and where she heard the gospel for the first time. She was baptized and because slavery was illegal in Italy, she was allowed to stay and join the order. She was given the name Josephine in religious life.

She never seems to have worked any miracles except for being unfailingly kind to all who wanted her help in any way. She just lived a simple, holy life in gratitude for all that the Lord had done for her. She became quite well-known in her lifetime because of her dramatic history and travelled widely in Italy telling her story, which she did very simply and briefly. She died in 1947 when she about 80 years old and was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.

One story about St. Josephine Bakhita that I love is that when she was fairly old, she heard that there was another black sister in another order. They were able to meet and they determined that the other sister was her older sister who had been kidnapped a short time before Bakhita. I can't imagine the joy they must have felt meeting again after having been separated from their family for so many years.

Zanini's book is based for the most part on the testimony given during the investigation that led to her canonization. It's very factual and he includes some information about the political situation of the time to help the reader understand her story better. I'd recommended it if you have any interest in Bakhita because there is so much more than I can write here.

Several years ago, shortly after her canonization I think, a retreat master told us Bakhita's story briefly and gave us a holy card with a relic. I don't know why, but the minute I saw this woman's face, I fell in love with her. There doesn't seem to have been any reason for this. I just did. Since then, I have made a friend, a woman who escaped from persecution in the Sudan, who now lives in Memphis. I haven't seen her in about a year, but I always felt that she me helped to know Bakhita a bit better. And then, Bakhita was the doorkeeper of the convent, which, as I mentioned in a previous post, is basically my current job in the parish, where I hope to grow to be as kind and grateful as she was, but I have to admit it's an uphill climb.


Friday, February 7, 2014


“Hope," says Emily Dickinson: the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul - 
And sings the tune without the words - 
And never stops - at all - 

 And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - 
And sore must be the storm - 
That could abash the little Bird 
That kept so many warm - 

 I’ve heard it in the chillest land - 
And on the strangest Sea - 
Yet - never - in Extremity, 
It asked a crumb - of me.

And this is lovely, and in some ways, true, but it seems to me to a rather thin, insubstantial description of hope, and if this is all there is, then we are in trouble. In know that in some other ways, this is a false hope. I know it because there have been times in my life, mercifully fairly brief and long past, when if there was anything with feathers in my soul, it was stiff as a board and lying on its back with its feet in the air. If this had been my only hope, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have succumbed to complete despair.

Along with this poetic view of hope, there is an everyday usage that also falls short of the mark. The current understanding of the word is that it expresses a desire that something be true. We really, really want it to be true. Also, when people say, "I hope this or that will or will not happen," it's frequently clear that they really mean "I doubt this will happen," or "I'm afraid this will happen." But our faith gives us reason to expect more.

Having grown up Catholic, I have always been accustomed to seeing Hope represented by an anchor, but I was probably in my 30s before I thought much about why that was. I was reading Hebrews 6:17-19 when I finally figured it out.
So when God wanted to give the heirs of his promise an even clearer demonstration of the immutability of his purpose, he intervened with an oath, so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil...
Our hope is anchored beyond the veil. It's already where we want to be. It's not insubstantial or fragile. It's as strong as iron. And we are tethered to that hope. There are days when we strain to pull ourselves toward that veil, and there are days when we know that other hands are doing the work for us, but even on those days when we go looking for that feathered thing singing in our soul and find instead a roaring lion prowling around with a few feathers hanging out of the side of his mouth, we can tie that rope around our waists and sit and wait and hope.

Further on in Hebrews, Paul tells us that, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." I do not have the vaguest notion, in any intellectual way, of what that means, but I somehow connect it with a very difficult period of my life. I remember that in my bleakest time, I didn't feel any hope. In fact, I didn't really feel anything at all except for a kind of desperation at the thought of having to be alive. The only time that I had any peace at all was when I could sit on my front porch during the very brief part of the freezing days when that was possible, and pray the rosary. That was my tether to that anchor in a very miserable and foggy sea. There was no singing, and there were no feathers; there was just cold inside and out, and holding on. But I knew I was holding on to something and somehow that was enough.

I know that there are probably some of you who really love this poem, and I probably know who you are, and I hope (heh) that I haven't ruined it for you. I kind of like it myself. I've heard that little singer many times, in fact I've probably experienced that more than the cold and fog, and it's certainly more pleasant. I just haven't found it quite as reliable as I would like--or as I need.

I'll close with another poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins--not so pretty, but maybe more hopeful.
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
 Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
 In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
 Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Is Everything Sad Going to Come Untrue?

With that Gandalf stood beside him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. "Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?" he said. ... "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?" 

"A great shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened, the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.
I don't know how many times I've read Lord of the Rings, but it's been many, many times, both to myself and out loud to my children, and I think that my youngest daughter may have read it to me. Still, when our retreat master read that eponymous phrase to us Sunday morning, I didn't remember that I'd ever heard it before. How evocative that question is. It is, I think, a yearning that resides in the deepest recesses of our hearts. 

Just so the apostles must have felt when they encountered the Risen Christ, like the Pevensies in Narnia--death itself working backwards. So will it? Will everything sad come untrue?

Well no, not in the way that the question seems to imply. Frodo, like Our Lord, (and like ourselves) bears his wounds, and life in Middle Earth, will never be the same. The evil ones have been routed, but they are still around and will certainly not surrender forever. Still, the shadow has departed. Likewise, our enemy is still prowling around seeking to devour whom he may, but his shadow--the threat of never-ending doom--has been dispelled for those who have eyes to see.

While we would like the sad things to have never been, Our Lord, of course, Whose ways are not our ways, has a better plan. He's the Great Recycler of the universe--never letting anything go to waste, and never content to just make something like new, He goes about making it better. Adam's sin becomes a happy fault. Jesus's pierced hands and feet become "rich wounds yet visible above;" and our wounds become the conduit through which we receive His grace and then pass it on to others.

"Is everything sad going to come untrue?" I wonder if perhaps in the end everything sad is going to have been untrue. Not that the sad things will not have happened, or that they will not have been horrible, but that they will somehow be seen as the cause of our joy. Sadness is, after all, a reaction to that which we deem to have been destructive: destructive of our bodies, destructive of our relationships, even destructive of our faith. But what if at last we see the wounded hands of Our Lord behind it all?