Saturday, 30 September 2006

Ah, how rubbish can be troubling!

For once, this is not a wry statement or pun. It is genuine rubbish which is troubling me, as I shall related following the customary spiritual reflection.

Thérèse of Lisieux was often remarkably candid - if, in the process, sometimes revealing she'd been a bit spoiled - in her autobiography. I well remember her writing of a particularly disagreeable nun, who found fault with everything and everyone. On one occasion, Thérèse was placing an artificial rose at a shrine. She saw the other nun approaching and, knowing her to be one to complain a good deal about allergies, was momentarily relishing having the whinge bag complain, then informing her the rose was fake. Being one who has lived in a convent, and who can be emotionally edgy, I can fully appreciate just how saintly it was when Thérèse approached the other Sister before she had a chance to speak and, showing her the rose, commented that it was remarkable how art could imitate nature these days.

How is this for a marvellous quotation for Thérèse's feast? "I sense in myself the vocation of Warrior, Priest, Apostle, Doctor, and Martyr. In the heart of the Church,
my Mother, I will be love."

What a woman! Yet she'd admit that something as silly as the rose incident so troubled her - and even speak of her 'conversion,' in quite dramatic terms, as a time when, as a teenager currently storming heaven to enter a highly austere Order, she managed to keep calm when her indulgent Papa commented that she was getting a bit old for Pere Noel.

This might seem a trivial matter, but I'm going to ask Thérèse to intercede for me. I may not be saintly, and hope no martyrdom is on the menu, but at least I am a Doctor - I've had to be a warrior (how else could I have persisted in the Church ministries all of those years?) - I've had my share of being apostolic - and would that I had the health to be a priest (though I've been a useful servant to a few.) But I want to 'be love' - and how hard it is!

My current peeve in the 'gets my back up' category has to do with rubbish. Not just the figurative rubbish which irks me day by day. No, this is genuine garbage.

My flat is in the basement of a Victorian home which was converted into six small apartments, and the building's total occupancy is nine. So far, I'm contented that no one seems to bother anyone else. Yet it so irks me (my grumbling to myself at this point usually includes "are people so stupid...?") that, though each flat has its trash can, and there are bins for the recycling right there, most of the others let their bins grow to a height of ten feet before they drag them to the kerb!

I wish to live in a clean house - think the heaped rubbish makes the building look like a slum (it is not) - and have no desire for the company of uninvited visitors with more than two legs. Fool that I am, I thought that, if I dragged out all of the garbage for a week or two, people would catch on... be grateful all was cleaned up... and be more inclined to just place the bins out for pickup. How wrong I was! (Here you'll see my naive nature.) The result, of course, was that, at this point, if I don't take the bins out they don't get out at all. And I find recyclable materials piled on top of my bin, though the bins for recycling are an arm's length away.

I know this will not change my practise. Some of the others in my building are young, and their bins will contain packaging from such items as 'take away' pizza. You know as well as I what cheese can attract... and what, of a similar species but larger variety, remnants of meat can attract...

Thirty years ago, I thought I was prepared to do anything short of martyrdom for the sake of charity and the kingdom. (Bear with Thérèse. You'll recall she never was much more than thirty years younger than I am am now, so her youthful fervour would endure. It was the much older Teresa who reminded God that, with how he treats his friends, it is no wonder he has so few.) Today, though I'm still a kind sort, I think I'll be canonised if I can hold back the anger that I feel, twice each week, when I see those overflowing bins... or the recycling piled on top... or the wrong type of recycling in a bin...

It can lead to the trashiest thoughts and language...

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Hail! Hail! Hail! Saint Michael!

The words which head this post admittedly are far more effective in Italian, preferably with the accents of a rough, peasant dialect. (Before it seems that I am being disparaging, please note that I speak Italian with a peasant accent, and, despite my many years of schooling, and that my English is perfect except when I flaw it deliberately, my accent in speaking English is worse still. Jesus of Nazareth was a Meditteranean peasant, whose accent held the slur of Galilee, so the first sentence of this paragraph is written with warmth.) I believe that, especially as we grow older, we can see just how many facets there are to our selves. I always was very intellectual, somewhat drawn to contemplation - and one for very formal, magnificent liturgy. But, more each year, I see value in folk religion and practise.

I always wished I had my mother's simple, trusting faith, and her ability to turn to our heavenly friends (sometimes quite brusquely - and you should have heard her shout at God at my dad's funeral) as a large, sympathetic, extended family. Of course, Italian peasants love being 'well connected.' They generally favour petitions to those from the same town as themselves. But Saint Michael, dweller in only heavenly courts (and quite a one for winning battles...), was a general favourite.

When my parents were young, their parish church (and many others) had quite a bit of feasting in honour of Michael. One highlight was that a large rope was erected, in the manner of a clothesline, between two of the buildings. One of the boys from the parish would be dressed in full angelic regalia - white robes, wings, and a long wig in that blonde shade which southern Italians so cherish for its rarity. He would be sent 'flying' across this clothesline-cum-path for angelic messenger, as the crowds below shouted, "Hail! Hail! Hail, Saint Michael!"

Memories of this, predictably for two who were so emotionally different and complemented each other so well, were quite different for (my parents) Chip and Sam. Chip, whose devotional ways lent towards the Infant of Prague, Saint Anthony's oil, and water from the sea on the feast of the Assumption (I've never discovered why pouring it over one's feet was good luck), used to get misty eyed, speaking of how beautiful the Saint Michael celebration was. Sam, pragmatic to the core (superb in his vocation, but one who undoubtedly held rosaries in his hand only when the undertaker placed them there), used to scoff. In his version, which I somehow am more inclined to believe, it looked rather stupid, and, most of the time, the 'angel' got stuck in mid air en route.

It is only in recent years that I can see how very healthy it is for me to reclaim my Mediterranean, peasant side to a greater extent. I have been privileged to study the works of many great theologians - people of whom my parents had never heard, and who would of been of little interest if they had. (Anthony who came to Chip's aid would not have been recognised as one of the greatest theologians of the Franciscan Order, though she would have loved the tale of his preaching to the fish.) Many of the theologians I love best are patristic or (surprise!) mediaeval, though I devour the later works as well. Yet, somewhere in history, things did get twisted. There was too much emphasis on 'the fall,' the crucifixion as focus, our weakness, dangers of falling into hell or, at the very least, having to take temporal punishments.

My family, and their friends, would have thought of none of those things. They had a strong moral code, indeed (even if it differed in some respects from that of nations farther north), and a very strong sense of responsibility. Yet I never once recall any of them seeing God as anything other than Father. Yes, one's dad may be disappointed in one, or be irritated or angry, or even give one a smack here and there - but it is unthinkable he would send his child to hell. Nor would he require his firstborn to be sacrificed in 'atonement.'

There was no guilt (even if a bit of it might have been appropriate for some of the crowd), no fear of God in any way, no fear, as well, of the powers of darkness. In fact, I doubt that anyone watching the angel fly above ever thought of 'be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil.' (Come to think of it, in Italian folk tales, when the devil appears he is either an outsmarted, comic figure, or someone useful when God needs to punish - well, educate - someone such as the girl who opened her door and made a lovely dinner for the handsome young man when she'd turned away the old man in need. They respectively, of course, were the devil and God in disguise.)

Were I 'in character,' I suppose that, tonight, I could have written of theophany, or of revelation, or of how the powers of good shall triumph, or even of divine glory. Yet I think I'll go to sleep with a smile now, picturing a blonde awkwardly flying across a clothesline as the crowd (who, in many cases, will not actually be in the church, save to light candles, until six men carry them out) shouts the praises of holy Michael.

I'll close with a prayer Saint Francis loved - and which I think I'll say a bit more often: "Lord, who are you? Lord, who am I?" When the peasant, renaissance lady, and scholar in me all are very close friends, I think it will be a very happy outcome.

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Of ecclesiastical polity and such

My nephew, Christopher, who is in the course of law studies, has an astonishing interest in and gift for things political. His knowledge of 'current events' is so vast that I daresay one could ask him about anything happening from Brussels to Hong Kong to some obscure city in the midwestern US and he would know every detail. In my own case, though I cannot be faulted in historical knowledge (provided, of course, the events took place at least a century ago, preferably five or more), my natural inclinations are related to culture. I also can be handicapped by that liturgy, ascetic theology, and what I'll term a patristic emphasis tend to colour everything with an attitude of 'let us see just how writers were encouraging the practise of contemplation and virtue.'

This naturally means that I can know minute details of certain historical periods, but unintentionally become so selective (I do not understand politics, war, conquering lands or seeking gold) that one might think I observed earthly history from a position on a distant planet. (Probably Saturn. Not only because it is the ruler of Capricorn, but because I always was so taken by those glorious rings. Ah, the heavens declare the glory of God... now, see what I mean? My readers will also begin to grasp that science eludes me as well. I can nearly levitate if I view a model of the DNA molecule...)

In recent weeks, I have been attending a lecture and discussion series about Richard Hooker. I find it extremely valuable that those conducting the programme include a theologian and a professor of law. I am hardly unfamiliar with the Elizabethan area - I am not Gloriana for nothing. During the past few years, it happened that, as part of my studies, I presented papers on the Elizabethan Settlement, the Book of Common Prayer, and the fate of the 1549 Prayer Book. But I suppose that one with a certain awe at the development of the Church of England (which was an historical accident, after all, if a most providential one) is hampered (even while understanding the importance of the unity of the state church) when she not only stumbles in the dark at things legal but had so much Roman Catholic experience (I do not mean in relation to marvellous works of theology which I've devoured - this is parish and diocesan nitty gritty) that she inwardly, if without realising this at the moment, winces at the words 'obedience' and 'authority.'

I have great respect for Richard Hooker, even if his writings sometimes give me the impression of a man who was overly fond of the sound of his own voice. It is no secret (to anyone who has read either this blog or any paper I wrote about the Reformation) that I loathe Calvinism - I'm still completely puzzled at a post I saw on a forum, from a devout Catholic in the northern United States, who seems to have adulation for the very Puritans who would have despised huge components of his faith. I have no philosophical objections to theocracy, but am not inspired by Geneva. Yet I do have an underlying sense of how carefully Hooker had to tread.

Whatever long lasting, beneficial effects the English Reformation would have (for example, I think the Prayer Book is a liturgical masterpiece, even if I do not see Cranmer as having possessed heroic sanctiry - and I even can be carried off by what a superb version of reformed Catholicism Mary and Cardinal Pole could have seen had Mary ever really listened to what anyone else had to say), it was a wicked time. (Find me any era which was not.) I have no illusions, either, about the holiness of Spain or the approaches of Pius V. I know the situation around the Elizabethan Settlement very well, and would hardly have wished to have been in the position of the original Gloriana - needing to unite the nation against enemies, and having the reigning pope give her Roman Catholic subjects the mission of overthrowing their heretic queen and uniting with nations of the true faith (...Spain, perhaps?). Theologically, and as far as long term conformity was concerned, I see the brilliance of the Settlement being in its underlying pragmatism. The Prayer Book services, in total, are sufficient for one following, perhaps, a vocation as a Benedictine monk - it is a Rule. (That this was on Elizabeth's mind was unlikely... bear with me, since I'm slipping into my usual mode again.) But the brilliance was in accepting that, even if there were many subjects whose theology would lean more to Geneva or Rome (and undoubtedly many, many subjects who weren't thinking of theology at all), a unity in worship was possible - and still is - despite controversies over doctrine and the like.

In last night's class, I, who can see many elements to just about everything but seldom see the obvious, found an explanation valuable. Where I see the Prayer Book as a means to orthopraxy (after all, how much can we really know of God - yet practise, recitation of the Offices, attendance at the Eucharist, means acting with worship - and, in the course of this, developing true worship), the Puritans saw a lack of sincerity. I am sure I'll be forgiven for wondering how a viewpoint that so stressed the gap between the status of the elect (whoever they were) and the depravity of human nature (deification would never have the popularity of 'the fall') could incorporate, at least implicity, a sense that one must have the virtue in the first place in order for worship to be sincere.

I also valued a previous class explanation related to how the positive anthropology Hooker expresses has an affinity with that of Thomas Aquinas. (I've never been one for depravity.) And this in an era where heads might decorate London Bridge, the Elizabethan reign (later to be seen as rather glorious) was shaky, uncertain, and threatened, and dreadful sinners (such as Roman Catholics) were in strong enough supply.

There is a paradox, common today but universal to all periods. The idea that one's current time is far superior to that past, yet that things are so much worse than they were forty years ago, ever shall endure. In Hooker's day, it must have been horribly confusing for the truly devout! I wonder if they had to check the calendar to see if they were Catholic or Protestant today, or it this was the season for erecting or smashing the rood screen.

Whether this was explicitly in Hooker's mind or not, I did have a thought which may be worth sharing. He treats of how, though all essential to salvation is in the scriptures, there are Christian beliefs not explicit in the gospels and epistles. Liturgical fan (...or wind machine) that I am, I naturally was thinking of how frequently Christ's Church grasped truths of revelation in the liturgy before they were 'codified.' Certainly Paul's epistles give a hint, and early liturgical manuscripts a strong one, that recognition of the Trinity, high Christology and the like were expressed in worship before ecumenical councils and creeds made them explicit. The Book of Common Prayer includes much scripture - but not without elements from the liturgy through the ages. A totally 'sola scriptura' approach, with liturgy downplayed or disdained, can keep one both from cherishing elements of such revelation, and from the very orthopraxy (however some might mistake it for a lack of sincerity) which draws one to God, however unaware.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

Perils of 'class participation'

When I was a young woman, I was privileged to attend one of the (rare enough) Dominican 'liberal arts colleges.' Classes were relatively small, so one could never fade into the background - a good thing, because it demanded proper preparation. The programme was very full. Each of us, for example, had to take four courses in philosophy, theology, English literature, history, etc., regardless of what subject was our concentration.

Much of our grade was based on participation in discussions - I recall one professor of philosophy who gave each pupil a daily mark for this. I would never be shy about participating, and have no doubt there were times when I had valuable insight to contribute. Yet, for all that I value this training, it left me with an affliction that it took years to overcome. :) (Don't let me even get started about what it is like to be a young PhD, where one feels one has to show a vast scope of knowledge about very narrow topics.) Taught to always find a reason to make a comment or ask questions, and indeed knowing that I had to do so to show I had read and analysed the material, even being naturally rather reserved did not prevent my feeling I always had to say something.

In an otherwise not notable book (high on style, low on content), "The Tulip and the Pope," author Deborah Larsen writes of her convent days. She does not identify the Order, as I recall, but they clearly were possessed of both intelligence and style. One wise teaching was 'do not think you always have to say something brilliant or witty.' How true! Feeling one must can make one seem domineering or tiresome, but it also is quite a strain. As in class, one can always be looking for the opening to make a comment. At worst, an innocent reference from another can make one begin to show one did extensive reading, indeed exceeded the requirements...

I must write an entry about how always having to be witty can make one a tiresome comedian in social settings, but I'll save that for another day.

Blessings to all.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Admitting a weakness for Maeve Binchy novels

Well, why not? I've already admitted my affection for A. J. Cronin.

Maeve's books would win no literary awards. Plots, such as they are, are very realistic for perhaps half of a book, but Maeve then does not seem to know how to resolve the action, and the endings are boring or melodramatic. Themes are undetectable. Maeve's strength (and, at her best, one most notable) is for depicting relationships of all kinds (especially between friends), folk wisdom, and circumstances which, in one form or another, have been a part of every life.

Maeve often captures how misunderstanding and assumptions cut off communications. Sister Madeleine, the village's confidante at large in The Glass Lake, cuts people off before they can say what is troubling them - but, since her reputation is for being 'a living saint,' they accept this. Leonora in The Copper Beech is aware of a murder - when she attempts to speak of this to a priest in confession, her tentative 'testing the waters' leads to his assuming that what is troubling an adolescent must be uneasiness about sex. Madeleine, another character in The Copper Beech, is trying to be supportive and close with a school friend who enters a convent - and is cut off for being 'too intense.'

This week, I was using Maeve's "Light a Penny Candle" for my 'wind down late at night' reading. Maeve captured perfectly how tortuous it can be to have a problem one fears sharing - and how the hearer can both 'cut one off' and make things worse. Aisling has married a handsome, prosperous man who is quite charming, and she is the envy of the village. She is confused and deeply pained because her husband, Tony, is an alcoholic, and the marriage has not been consummated after 17 months. Finally, Aisling tries to confide in her mother, Eileen.

Eileen indeed cares about her daughter - but, as is even more common in families than at large, she falls into assumptions. Aisling's tentative mention of a personal problem leads Eileen to think that her daughter, whom she knows to be an innocent sort, is worried about details of sex in marriage (and takes Aisling's mention of there being no sex at all in her marriage to be a subtle way of speaking merely of a lack of pleasure.) Eileen cuts off the opportunity for a confidence by saying that telling people things can make us hate them for knowing them, and by adding that, when she had doubts about sex in the early months of her own marriage, she is glad she did not 'betray' her husband by consulting anyone else. Worst of all, she sees evidence of Aisling's pain and depression and calls her a 'lazy slut,' leaving her only with the (old, tired, but still common) reprimand not to 'feel sorry for herself.'

In the end, Aisling takes off, cutting herself off from the entire village including her family, because she knows she cannot be heard, let alone understood.

Such things happen in every life, of course. Families, in particular, often form a sterotypical image of a family member which no evidence to the contrary can shake. All of us have had times when we ached to share pain, or thought that an explanation could restore understanding with those whom we love - but, once people think they know the answer (or think that anyone who, for example, has the material security and handsome husband an Aisling has, should be glowing with contentment), there is no shaking this.

I believe the rarest of human gifts is that of truly being open in listening to others.

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Why is every problem taken to have a physical cause?

I read many a link, and I am totally puzzled as to why I often see assumptions that every problem (many assumed to be imaginary, like Scrooge's undigested bit of beef) has a physical root, and can be cured by doctors, nutritionists, exercise, vitamins. Emotional problems are not assumed to have any connection with circumstances, save that one who is kicked down the stairs and feels hurt should recognise this as an imagined slight and get rid of it with Prozac. One who has marital problems just needs some endorphins, which pumping a bit of iron shall supply.

For the record, I believe it is important for those physically or mentally ill to obtain the proper medical treatment. I am in no way denying that illness of the body can affect the mind as well. My complaint is that thinking tofu, aerobics, or doctors are the cure for all ills.

Perhaps it gives people a sense of control. Many problems have no solution available - others are too painful for us to face. Or trusting all to some latter day magician, who takes one under total control whilst convincing one that all the problems lie in these herbs or in not eating meat, gives a sense of security. All I have seen it lead to is self absorption, misunderstanding of true illness, and a sad tendency to ignore what might be essential spiritual problems or difficulties in relationships.

What if, for example, deep down we know we are wronging others? Isn't facing this much healthier than reading self help books which will convince us they 'chose' to be harmed, or thinking we can eliminate the problem with a run?