Thursday, 30 March 2006

And please remember me with laughter

I come from a large, extended family, and, since fortunately most tended to live to an advanced age, as it happens my parents, aunts, and uncles (some well into their 90s) all died within a relatively brief period. Grateful though I am for their lives, it can be difficult, when one was part of a close (and enormous) family, to face that nearly everyone of my parents' generation is dead. Just yesterday, I attended a funeral for my aunt, and (aside from groaning inwardly at to what dreadful depths the liturgy for Roman Catholic funerals has descended) I could not help but notice who 'was not there.'

Yet there was a development for which I am grateful and glad. Afterward, my cousins, sister and I had hilarious conversations, remembering not only my aunt who just died but all of those who are no longer with us. Deo gratias! I know that, when I have left this life, I want others to remember me with affection and humour.

When I was a child, two of my grandparents were still living. My dad's father had died, but Sam remembered him pleasantly. It was quite another matter for my mother. Her own mother died at age 75 (quite a life span for someone born in the 1870s), and had many children and grandchildren, yet, to listen to my mother speak of her, one would think the only thing Grandma ever did in her life was die.

All children fear losing their parents, of course. Yet I do regret that, in my very early life, my mother gave me the impression that, once one loses a parent, the rest of one's life will consist of mourning. When my mother was elderly, she still could not speak of grandma without great sorrow - and this after 40 years and more.

It was quite different, when I was 16 or so, and a dear friend lost her father. It had been quite a shock - Jack was only in his 50s, and had died of a sudden heart attack while playing with his youngest son (who was no more than 10.) Still, within months, and certainly after years, all of his children remembered him with laughter, and regularly shared memories of good times. I am sure that later, when they married and had children of their own, they may have felt some sense of loss that dad was not there - but I would far rather live in the memory of others with joy than in a house of perpetual crepe.

Bereavement is a key example, but heaven knows there are others. I have seen many times how tragedy can break us - but how we may make things worse if we fear that letting go of the mourning eventually is a lack of tribute to the love we had (whether for people or anything else which is precious to us.)

A few years ago, I attended a memorial for the British nationals killed at the World Trade Centre in 2001. I have always remembered the very moving message from HM the Queen, which included the very true reflection that "grief is the price we pay for love." I do hope that, when I am gone, there is someone left to grieve for me (for a time) - one of the hardest aspects of a life totally devoted to the Church is that one may have no one to remember oneself in anything other than a capacity of 'service.' But let the grief be one not to endure. I wish to be remembered with laughter and warmth.

For those who have gone before us: may they rest in peace and rise in glory.

May the angels lead you into Paradise,
May the martyrs come to welcome you, and take you to the Holy City,
The new and eternal Jerusalem, where Lazarus is poor no longer.
May you have eternal rest.

Monday, 20 March 2006

Laughter, anyone?

Franciscan jester here! Lord have mercy, did I have a time this past Sunday! I had awakened extremely early, without meaning to do so, and both the cold weather and my having a mild stomach upset made me decide to attend a local church's quiet 8:00 Eucharist. (It was my first time entering that church.) I am by no means a 'morning person,' and I now am beginning to wonder if my absent-mindedness means I've reached the seventh mansion, lapsed into senility, or merely come to embody the proverbial scholar's role. A blind man was present, with a huge, jet black dog for a guide - and I somehow managed not to see the dog (who probably was as big as I am) and tripped over him on my way to communion. Oh, well, that was not as bad as when I had a shoulder bag and, not realising it had pulled up my skirt en route to the altar rail, treated the congregation to the sight of my knickers...

Foolish though I must appear, I am sharing these silly stories because I think a bit more laughter at our own expense would do us a world of good. Certainly, it is not at odds with the faith. Somehow, I picture Jesus inwardly snickering when, in the parable of Lazarus, he said how those who will not obey the law and prophets would hardly listen to a man who rose from the dead. His saying he 'did not come to call the righteous,' considering it was 'the righteous' whom he was addressing. How about "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Jeroboam? Aaron's just not knowing what happened - they threw in the gold and this golden calf popped out. And heaven knows there are many stories of the saints which are hilarious. (Forgive my Latin, which is always dreadful - but even the earnest Augustine can be remembered for 'inter urinam et faeces nascimur.')

I loathe political correctness. One must 'walk on eggs' today, not knowing what perfectly good English word suddenly has a new and derogatory connotation. I remember referring to diversity (meaning 'of thought'), and having someone become angry, thinking I meant race. (I'd had no idea that this was the current meaning of the word.) Actually, the politically correct terms often are more offensive than not in many cases. It vaguely reminds me of a smug bitch I used to know who loved to insult others, but would coach it in terms she thought 'inoffensive.' Somehow, where accidentally saying something that just popped into one's head is universal, when someone carefully crafts the insult to use the 'inoffensive' term, it is all the worse for the obvious pre-meditation.

But the other side of the political correctness is that one cannot laugh at the human condition. Perhaps the Orthodox have the right idea, enjoying, even revering, the 'holy fools.' (Francis of Assisi among them.) We need to be so careful today, not to say anything that could be construed as offensive, that we take ourselves far too seriously - when we should not.

I was at a church service once which was exceedingly boring - lots of preaching of the 'guilt trip' variety. I was on verge of going out for air or dropping off to sleep, though the annoyance factor was high. Thank heavens for the unexpected relief! The dreadful homilist, warming up for another round of 'we have it too good - we may be headed for hell,' made a reference to the apostle Peter. A retarded girl who was sitting near me said, in fairly projecting tones, "Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter!" Yes, I laughed, as did others - and what a blessing. (Before anyone brings me to court for supposedly degrading the mentally challenged, may I add that I doubt this was any funnier than my incident with the shoulder bag. Oh, well, that's how Marilyn Monroe got started, I hear... and I have four times as much to display as she had.)

I laugh at my own hearing impairment. So, someone asked the way to All Souls... and I heard 'gallstones.' And I laugh at my being in 'outer space.' I well recall when Doris was proudly showing me a necklace which was a gift from her sons. It was the type where one can add little charms, and hers had many a memory - I was enjoying hearing what each charm symbolised. Yet I'm sure Doris was puzzled when I saw one charm which was a capital D, and asked "500 what? What does the D stand for?" (It never occurred to me, after wrestling with so much Latin, that it stood for Doris.)

One of my favourite memories is of a senile priest whom I knew. He was far too off with the faeries to handle Mass or confession any longer, but the two other priests hoped he could manage Benediction on his anniversary, provided they stood at his sides. Fr M managed to bless the congregation with the monstrance, but, when he returned to facing the altar, rather than beginning the Divine Praises, he immediately and hilariously began singing "Sweet Violets."

One of the greatest benefits of laughter is that it reminds us of our weakness - without making us guilty or afraid. Once we have a good look at universal human frailty, we can set all personal superiority aside and perhaps take a step towards love of neighbour - or see our own limitations and develop some sense of divine providence.

Politically correct or not, I shall laugh to my dying day at the memory of once hearing a Franciscan priest (deadpan, and obviously unaware of his error) say, at the point of lifting the Host, "Behold the leg of lamb!"

Sunday, 19 March 2006

Give me a topic, please

My faith in humanity has been very slightly restored today. I visited a theology forum where some very knowledgeable (if rather pedantic) people, most young enough to be my children, were debating whether it is sounder, theologically and liturgically, for the Eucharist to be offered facing east or west. I felt rather like a potted plant being watered after a long interval. It made me long for the days when pub conversations (and how I love those!) in the East centred on such tit-bits as whether Arius was correct about the nature of Christ.

I mention this because I remember a quotation, though not the source, to the effect of how fruitless it is to attempt a battle of wits with an unarmed man, and heavens is there an excess of those! Most people seem so self absorbed that trying to have any kind of a conversation is fruitless. Yet I also suspect that, if they have any grey matter at all, it has atrophied from lack of use.

Though I could provide many examples, this one seems appropriate to illustrate typical dimness - it is a boring conversation which I've had so many times, and with a vast variety of people. I have had curly hair since I was born - it is one of few of my attributes which is obvious at first glance. One would think that those whom I've previously met, much less those who have known me for thirty years, may have observed the curls at one time or another. Yet this is a typical conversation, whether it is someone I've only met once in the past or one who has known me since the Beatles were in the top ten:

Dimwit: "Did you get a permanent?" (If it is someone who knows I'm not well heeled by any means, the opening may be, "You have financial problems, and you still got a permanent?)
Me: "No. I've always had curly hair."
Dimwit: "They are not wearing curly hair this year." (I suppose it is permissible to have such only if it cost one considerable money, but I digress..)
Me: "It came with my head."
Dimwit: "Have you ever tried blow drying it straight?"
Me: "Only from 1965 to 1993."
Dimwit: "My (sister/daughter/friend) blows hers out straight."

I suppose that it might be pleasant to be a fascinating sort... but I, unlike inhabitants of the self help aisle, have no such illusions. Yet I would think that anyone with an IQ exceeding that of "Lucy" (from the British Museum) would have more interesting topics to discuss than my curly hair. (Those who are less evolved than Lucy will begin their sentences with, "They taught us in Weight Watchers...," "My son/daughter is the best adjusted child in her (kindergarten) class,"... "They say...," or "I've been exploring my inner child.")

However, one who is tempted, as I am, to say (in a more polite fashion) "get a life," refrain from doing so because dimwits will turn it back on me, to suggest that I do not have one. :) Mention anything in the arts and humanities (which, after all, are my areas of specialisation), and the retort will be, "Oh, I don't have time for ..." Or the assumption will be that I wasted time on all those useless pursuits and degrees, when I could have been... making more money, going to Weight Watchers, blow drying my hair straight. It is not, of course, that I respect the opinions of members of the dimwit set - only that I do not wish my personal Vesuvius to erupt.

Sadly, situations such as these tend to exist in the Church as well. Preoccupation with some trendy topic, focussing only on one issue, instilling guilt trips and deprivation parties, all are just as boring as the nonsense I have mentioned. It is sadder still if 'the people can only relate' (in the minds of the speakers) to the mediocre and stupid.

I suppose I don't expect everyone to love Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bach, Verdi... I'd best stop there, or I'll be here all night. :) My point is that one should have real interests, and not insult others by assuming they have none.

Give me the pub days when there were arguments about the nature of the Trinity, as heated as if the debaters had been wearing football colours...

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

I am very involved with exam revisions now, and one of my courses has to deal with worship in the primitive church. Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are perhaps the only universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. Looking back to a 'golden age' is a favourite pastime of everyone in every era, yet such have never existed.

I am not likely to call the Last Supper an actual celebration of the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) Yet the event is one for which something approaching Ignatian meditation is exceedingly tempting.

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) Right to the end, the apostles were tossing about the idea of who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

It is all too easy, particularly if one not only watches the scriptural epics and reads the 'Lives of Christ' of another time, and has been exposed to the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth, to picture twelve intense young men, in great awe at having been first to see the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. Actually, what was present at the Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :)

I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with all this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were either simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated a day early. (Well, at least, in that day, they were spared the irate vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "But wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. I would imagine that Matthew was still sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering all of his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from that sad incident of attempting to walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Still, whenever I heard the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me to think that the perpetual memorial has endured for two millenia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water was the catholic element - and these rituals of common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc., with Christians being the odd ones who conformed neither to Jewish nor pagan society.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. We shall never accept that, of course. :) Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that some ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made...

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

A few jokes for St Patrick's Day

Best that you look here if you wish serious information about Patrick, inspiring as he is. But today I'm remembering my good friend Tom (who died in 1993) - a son of Kerry and Franciscan priest - by recording a few of his favourite jokes.

While in the pub with some cronies, Mike raised a toast: "To the best years of my life, spent between the legs of my wife." Later, Mike felt a bit sheepish about what he'd said, and though he told wife Katie that he'd remembered her, Mike said he'd raised the glass with, "To the best years of my life, spent in church beside my wife."

Next day, one of Katie's friends, who'd learnt of the toast from her own husband, congratulated Katie on the way Mike had complimented her. "Aye, and I wish it were true," sighed Katie, "But really it only happened twice - one before we got married, and once after. And the second time I had to wake him up when it was all over."


Paddy and Brigid, having kept company for 30 years, decided it was time to marry. When Paddy consulted his pastor about the ceremony, he admitted that he found many of the liturgical changes confusing and troublesome.

"Well, you can have the old rite if you wish, Pat, but it's so cold and informal. Now, with the new rite, there is warmth and love and real participation! So, were I in your place, I would take the new one." Ever obedient to the clergy, Paddy agreed.

On the day of the wedding, Paddy was driving to church alone when he got a flat tyre. Paddy removed his collar, tie, and jacket, rolled his trouser legs to the knees, and fixed the tyre. By then he was late, and, fearing Brigid would think he'd stood her up after 3 decades, he panicked a bit. Though Paddy remembered to adjust the rest of his clothing, he did not realise that his trouser legs were still rolled.

As he entered the church, quite breathless, the Monsignor, noticing Paddy's disarray, called to him, "Paddy! Pull down your trousers now!"

The indignant Paddy called back, "Father, I'll take the old rite!"


"Have you seen Mulligan lately, Jim?"
"Well, I have and I haven't."
"How's that you say?"
"On Thursday, I saw a chap I thought was Mulligan, and he saw a chap he thought was me. But, when we got to each other, it was neither of us."


Blessings to all for the feast of Saint Patrick.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Colette of Corbie

Click the link in the title for a brief biography of my dear patron Colette (my religious name being Elizabeth Colette, the former name for Elizabeth of Hungary). I'm afraid nothing I could think of to write in the blog today, the anniversary of Colette's death, to match this wonderful paragraph from the Poor Clare site to which I have linked:

Colette lived in, what some have called, the most hideous selection of time and space in history: the Hundred Year War in France. The English came, robbing, pillaging and taking hostages, needing to be bought off. The French came to drive out the English; they, too, lived off the land. The Strippers of the Wheat: the marauding private war bands came, fighting their own vendettas, torturing, burning, raping; indiscriminately hiring themselves to either side and exacting tribute. The crops failed, the plague came. So many died there were none left to bury the dead. The Church was in fragments; it was the age of the "Babylonian Captivity." There was one Pope in Avignon and one in Italy. Yet the well-nigh atheistic illuminators of the millionaire Duc de Berry's Books of Hours mainly depict rose gardens, hunting dogs and banquets, all under the signs of the Zodiac in a fallacious chivalric bubble.

My passion for the Middle Ages is by no means to be taken as a sign that I would have cared to live then! Yet I particularly love the quote above, because too many people later (particularly Victorians, including the fathers of the Oxford Movement... when they were not to busy disappearing into the romances of chivalry) had a quaint, picturesque image of the period as a time of romance. Though I would agree with Eamon Duffy that devotion was very high at the time, and join the liturgical scholars in shaking their heads at how the liturgy excluded people from communion and such, it is amusing that a time of such tumult is depicted as nearly a storybook period.

Yet there is a part of the 14th century that touches my heart deeply (besides, of course, the writings of the mystics whom I mention on my site.) It was the last age of true 'pluralism' in Catholicism. For all the benefits which, however indirectly, would come in wake of the Reformation, Trent would close the door on debate, inquiry, and the like - the church had been shattered, and all that could keep it from breaking into pieces entirely was canon law. In the 14th century, amongst those with the slightest pretense to orthodoxy, :) everyone agreed that the Eucharist was essential, and was the Body and Blood of Christ - but it was all right to say one had no idea how that was so.

Colette was a strong woman - in an Order where, from the time of Francis and Clare, strength in the women was not only common but often saved the men from excess. (Francis was many wonderful things... stable or strong not being among them. Had he not consulted Clare - and Leo - he well may have cut short the magnificent birth of the Order by retiring to a hermitage.) Mediaeval saints are orthodox indeed, but they happily were of the last time when obedience was not the "be-all and end-all" of religious existence. It is fortunate that they did not invariably defer to bishops... considering the quality of some of the hierarchy (the more in an era where there were at least two, sometimes three, popes).

When I chose Colette for a patron (heavens, was it over a quarter century ago?!), I knew little about her save that she had reformed the Poor Clares. Little did I know, then, that both her religious path and mine would hardly be 'textbook.' Like myself, Colette had an unconventional life. She received approval for the (still strong!) Poor Clare Colettines from a false pope, and, at the time, was the only member of the new congregation.

Do pray me for, dear readers - that I can possess one tenth of Colette's sanctity. (I'm afraid I already have her tenacity and tendency to 'go my own way' as a very enthusiastic lover of Christ... but that gets one into all sorts of messes when one does not have the holiness to match. Nor was the 20th century the best time for religious dedication that could be interpreted, wrongly, as obsession.)

Thursday, 2 March 2006

Confusion of 'fasting' and 'fast track'

However few are certainties in this life, one highly predictable, annual occurrence is here once again. Those who are in training for spiritual gymnastics are looking for new variations on the Lenten fast. Based on threads on a theology forum on which I participate, one would think that fasting was a combination endurance contest, punishment, means to free oneself of all passions (foremost those for chocolate), solution to the economic situation of the world, and major means for ego stroking. I suppose that those who manage to faint win a daily door prize.

This is not to say that fasting is not a valuable spiritual practise. The best exposition of this which I have seen is that which Margaret Mary Funk gives in her book "Thoughts Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life." (No, I neither know her nor receive royalties. My regular praise for this little book is based on its being the best capsule course in ascetic theology I have seen. I can only hope that no one, reading my favourable review, will think that it is a shortcut to the Seventh Mansion.) She bases her explanation on the works of John Cassian, and also on the adaptation of the related concepts in the Benedictine Order (of which she is a member.)

Were I to be asked what is the primary benefit of fasting (...I'm going to tell you anyway, though you did not ask), I would say it is the essential awareness it fosters. When fasting is a manner of placing thoughts in proper perspective, it removes distractions to our prayer lives and love for others. Placing a simple drive - that for food - in such perspective can help us to deal with thoughts which are greater and more dangerous distractions.

The forum I mentioned had enough participants who wish to embrace vegan fasting (such as is common with Orthodox Christians)... because they think the 'western fast' is not difficult enough. I am no expert on Orthodoxy, but my understanding is that, first, those embracing strict fasting in that tradition do so in consultation with a spiritual father or mother. Presumably, in such a context, were pride, self hatred, heroism, or a distorted, excessive sense of either one's sin or virtue to intrude on the practise, such guidance would keep it 'in check.' As well, when one is part of a sister church where this is the common practise, it is stripped of any glamour - it is orthopraxy, as with Jews who observe Kashruth, not a personal obsession.

Why do I say 'obsession' about an ascetic ideal which is nearly as old as the Church? I'm basing that on the sort of comments I've heard or read, such as were on that forum. Too many people were not seeing underlying gifts one can receive from fasting at all. Fasting is not a contest in starvation or deprivation. (Trappist monks, vegan for centuries, certainly saw to it that they had sufficient nourishment to work in the fields.) The more enthusiastic Christians whose contributions I read went on and on about how they were 'too comfortable' (I wish they'd try some gratitude instead of guilt), how what they are doing lets them make large donations to the poor (all, of course, in a larger scope of not recognising one's limitations), how much weight they lost, etc., etc..

If one finds secondary benefits from fasting, fine - but that should not be a focus. It is intended to remove distractions, not create new ones.

No Franciscan is going to deny the importance of caring for the poor (though, equally, none of us have any illusions about having huge means for alleviating poverty of others.) Yet Francis, by comparison with other founders of religious Orders, in no way imposed rigid ascetic practises on his friars. (I think Francis, who later would admit that he'd damaged his health, always remained aware that some of his own excess in that direction came from a preoccupation with his own sinfulness. He would have a lifelong struggle with self hatred, yet it was accompanied by a delight in divine grace.) It was a Franciscan custom to see whatever was on one's plate as a blessing - and, indeed, in many Franciscan houses, the grace before meals ends with "May the Lord bless this gift of charity."

I see no benefit in thinking of food as evil (all too common today, when, based on the sites one consults, one can think that all the evils of the world stem from what one eats, or even that eternal life and youth can stem from not eating.) Rather, we should take a tip from Francis, and approach the table with not only enjoyment but, most importantly, gratitude. Franciscans know that both feast and fast are important customs on the calendar. We seldom have the wealth for the table to be groaning, but there is no sense of 'I'm eating chicken tonight, when I live in the First World and therefore am an oppressor of the Third.' Gratitude for that chicken (tomato, bread, apple) and for the people who raised it is a fine practise! Over time, and this without directly giving it attention, the gratitude for others and for the fruits of creation inevitably will lead to greater concern for those who do not have them in sufficient measure.

My cynical side tells me that a love for deprivation is more often a sign of avarice than of detachment. I well remember once reading a work on the spiritual life (name escapes me) which mentioned how, in the highly austere life of the Carthusians, now and then a new candidate has unusual 'fervour.' The life just is not austere enough for him - he needs a harder path. Members of this set normally find the life unbearable within a short period of time.

If everything is 'too easy' in the spiritual life... then I'll believe there is a parallel universe! Most of the practise is simple, 'banal,' and actually difficult - but not tortuous! It is not a shortcut to the crown and glory of the martyrs. Someone who is proud of how she, more so than any other Sister in the house, is highly abstemious may well not need to eat - because the glory she assumes she has in the eyes of others is sustaining enough. (Actually, in religious Orders, it would be highly unlikely that anyone would be allowed to add their own further austerities...)

I'm laughing at a memory. I once heard a lecture (not, I must add, in accord with the 2,000 year history of the Church) about 'meditation' about thirty years ago. It all was based on 'energies' - and supposedly one who did whatever the lecturer was suggesting would 'be at the Prayer of Quiet' within thirty days. (I'm not at the Prayer of Quiet after 30 years... and for some reason, which perhaps is obvious, I doubt that quiet is ever going to be my own strong point.) This appealed to the crowd in which I occasionally moved at the time (fledgling mystics, pre-shrunk), who were inclined to such statements as, "I read John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul last weekend. I remember when I went through all of that, a long time ago." (This though none of us had been born a 'long time ago.')

There are no 'instant fixes' in our lives. Fasting had no glamour until it became relatively rare amongst Christians. Let us use it as a way to remove the distractions that keep us from the true essence of Lent - the Incarnation, eschatology, the resurrection, and all the other blessings that can die in the light of our seeking our own glory.