Friday, 26 February 2010

Parents existed since Eden - 'parenting' is a recent addition

I am a reviewer for, and frequently provide reviews for books in advance of their publication. One which I looked through this week was Amy Wilson's "When Did I Get Like This?" Amy is the mother of three, the eldest of whom is six, and, though her book is largely humour, somehow I could just feel her tension (despite her love for the kids) in analysing everything that is presented as "good parenting" at the moment. I may have laughed at her description of filing applications for a child of three to enter pre-school, but on another level I found it rather tragic. Heaven knows that 'child psychology' presented problems for years, but today's new mother has to worry about whether diluted apple juice (which breaks the current 'water only' trend) will give children diabetes - and does one tell a daughter she is pretty, thereby fostering positive 'body image,' or fear that doing so will cause her to grow into a pre-modern female who thinks everything hinges on her appearance? Parents have quite enough to deal with just in the genuine responsibility they assume - they hardly need bizarre guilt!

I have no children, and my friends are now grandparents - but I am aware that those of my own generation had their share of 'new' worries. (I'm sure that parents have had basically the same worries since mankind existed - and, until recently, had a far greater worry in whether their children would live till adulthood. But I doubt that they thought there was a magic formula to produce perfect children, or guilt over every supposed lapse.) Though my friends, mercifully having reproduced before Internet forums and the self-help aisle, didn't have to deal with health kicks, paranoia over everything their children ate (there are Internet sites which would make just about anything one consumed seem as poison), and "developmental goals" which pushed for reading at the age of nine months, they had to fret over, for example, whether a child would have sufficient 'bonding' if dad hadn't been present for a delivery.

Any realistic teacher would know that which pupils are the brightest, the laziest, the most easily distracted, the most talented, whatever, has nothing to do with whether a child is aged 10 years plus a week or 10 years and nine months. Yet, with children being in classroom situations at the age of two, it's tragic that parents are in a knot over whether a "2.6" has sufficient maturity, or a "2.9" will be taller than the others. (...It just struck me that if, today, I entered a classroom full of kids of 13, I'd probably be the shortest, but be that as it may.) I'm glad I lived in an era when children that age were free to 'hang out' with other little ones. I'll never be accused of a lack of respect for learning, I'm sure, but isn't there much that we learn - including how to deal with others, or how to develop our interests, or just how to have fun, provided that 'dancing' doesn't have to be 'body movement awareness' - on our own?

This has nothing to do with the book I mentioned, but the idea that one can create a 'designer child' through 'parenting' frightens me less than that of selecting 'designer' sperm or ova for one's embryo. (I'm not a moralist, and not qualified to comment on the morality of in vitro - I'm speaking on a more basic level.) I've known brilliant parents whose five children were average (or lower) in intelligence, and vice versa. There is no guarantee that a concert pianist will have kids who have musical gifts, or that an athlete will have children fit for the Olympics. But, especially during my 'far off' youth when many people had large families, and everyone knew those who did, it was clear that these things are a roll of the dice. I shudder to think of how disappointed parents may resent a child who doesn't possess the traits they specially ordered. (Even when one gets what one thinks one wanted, it can backfire. The genius IQ can mean Albert Einstein or Adolf Hitler.)

Were I to try to record here what I think of eugenics, I frankly would become ill.

I hate sounding pious (especially because I am indeed), but I believe we need to remember the identity each of us has as being in God's image, and of how we were dignified in Creation and in Christ's taking on this nature. We all have our gifts, all are flawed - and we can neither order or programme the former nor avoid the latter.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Wisdom on a bookmark

The catalogue from the Scriptorium of the All Saints' Sisters of the Poor in Maryland is a treat in itself - their greeting cards, bookmarks, and holy cards all the more so. I was introduced to their work when a friend sent me an assortment of cards (which I often used for bookmarks - but too often, to my later regret, gave away). Some of their cards are especially beautiful in design, or have great charm (for example, a priest in cassock, cotta, and stole standing in a rainstorm and blessing some little animals - with the calligraphy proclaiming, "Circumstances simply do not count; we come to give rather than to receive"), or are witty in verse or picture. Yet one of the simplest I found striking in its message, and decided to share with you today.

To escape criticism:
Say nothing.
Do nothing.
Be nothing!

Frustrating, even maddening, though it is, I have learnt that there is nothing anyone can do (however good or outstanding - I'm not referring to crimes or scandal here) which will not provoke criticism from someone. I'm sure those who won the Nobel or Pulitzer prizes not only had opposition to their views but muttering about how they must have had too much time on their hands (to be able to have such accomplishments.) Every choice one makes in life (from something as stupid as which dress to wear today, to what state of life one embraces, to what university subject one studies) always will be 'wrong' in the minds of some others (and one will be told.)

I've known this for ages, of course. Yet I blush to admit that to this day I either (1) find that I am defending myself (even after decades of knowing this not only is worthless but only inspires the 'critic' to further glory), (2) wish I could defend myself (this is especially idiotic, because I know I owe no defence to anyone, or (3) depending on the matter, when my usual "that is none of your business" fails, find myself responding with such off the cuff comments as "play the ego game with someone else, bitch", for all that I know I'll regret that within the hour (however accurate my assessment is)... or at least by the time I say Evening Prayer.

However, there is one fortunate trait of mine which I would encourage others to consider. I may hate the condescension of those who perpetually criticise (and their name is Legion), but it never changes my decisions or the manner in which I live. (Note to those, especially the young, who may read this - if you are looking for such things as prosperity, popularity, and acceptance, don't try this in public... I've never been anything but broke. I have my share of talents and an impressive collection of degrees... all, of course, in 'useless' subjects. Those who do not understand irony who write me about my supposed bad self-esteem will receive ten thousand years in purgatory. Kindly remember that, especially during Lent, one may recall what happened to Jesus of Nazareth and his Twelve - even the ultimate goodness, let alone our flimsy efforts, does not guarantee universal acceptance...)

I'll close with my favourite of all the quotes on the All Saints Sisters' cards - it's framed on my fridge, and I wish to have it on my memorial card when I die:
"They drew a circle that cast me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took them in."

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

It is my honour to remain, Your Grace...

...I suppose that,under some circumstances, that sentence might continue with something along the lines of 'your most humble servant,' but I knew full well that no one would believe that. This may come as something of a surprise, but (much as I'm sure I'd enjoy doing so - and, in those cases, at least the protocol is consistent) I've never had a seat in the House of Lords (nor really known anyone who did), nor have I been presented at Court. Rather, I had three decades of working for the RC Church - and in several different dioceses. You will understand my discretion in not mentioning precisely where.

I love pageantry. One of my favourite images of Christ is as King of King and Lord of Lords (even if it helps me, now and then, to remember that, during his earthly ministry, he was a Mediterranean peasant - for reasons that may be obvious.) I was rather disappointed when Paul VI declined the 'triple crown' (yes, I know why - but I love tradition), and all the more sorry when John Paul II decided against a coronation at all. (Later, it occurred to me that a man's man such as John Paul may have seen this as a colossal waste of money - and that, given his own origins, such a spectacle would have resembled my father's having a coronation. For all my long years of membership in the Monarchist League, I'll concede that I'd feel silly having a crown placed on my own head.)

I've known many a bishop (not all ordinaries - but some of them would be known to you, hence my discretion.) During my youth, certain customs (such as genuflecting to kiss a bishop's ring) went from being strictly observed to falling by the wayside. My first diocesan job was in a Worship Office - these were the days of intense liturgical optimism... The bishop with whom I'd have had the most contact then was not young, but didn't care for frills, and left many people, including his clergy, nearly tumbling when he told them not to kiss the ring. He liked to be addressed, whether in speech or writing, as just "Bishop," with no name following.

Names here are fictitious but should give you the flavour. The next three bishops with whom I had the closest connections preferred to be addressed as (1) Your Excellency in writing, but "Archbishop" or "Archbishop Jones" in speech, (2) "Bishop Edward," and (3) Your Grace. That last did not care to have anyone refer to him as anything but "His Grace." (Don't let on that I revealed this, but, whatever RC talk there is about what was previously suffered from the English, there are RC bishops who, deep down, would love not only a seat in the House of Lords but an accompaniment of Swiss Guards, if not ten legions of angels - the latter visibly manifest, of course.)

I've known bishops who would wear the sort of regalia one sees on Vatican broadcasts to attend a picnic, others who, seeking to be something of the 'common man' (...and those who tried that often betrayed that they were common indeed...), wore clerical shirts with the pectoral cross tucked into a pocket - coupled with a mandatory cardigan - on more formal occasions. For reasons I've never been able to discover, the fatter the bishop, the more likely that he'd be wearing trousers in a loud tartan material when he was trying to be 'off duty' and inconspicuous.

I never worked in a bishop's office, but, in my own role (which I'll just summarise as a manager), naturally I had contact with many. Communication, especially when everything had to be documented and therefore needed a cover letter, presented intricate problems. Provided he (or "His Grace") phoned me first, I was permitted to speak. (In fact, I broke many a telephone cord unwittingly. It was so natural that I didn't even realise I was doing this, but, once I heard the bishop's voice, I immediately rose from my chair - and the phone ended up on the floor.) Writing was another matter! Neither I nor my boss (who was upper management) could have the audacity to write to a bishop - even if it was only a cover memoranda forwarding a new credit card. If I recall correctly, the "stratosphere" level boss (my boss's boss) could write to bishops provided they wrote to him first. Otherwise, we'd have to seek out his secretary to write to the bishop's. (I'm burning a bit because it would have been acceptable for me, though not my own boss nor my male subordinates, to write to a bishop's secretary, because I was a woman and therefore never quite taken seriously. I could tell many irritating stories, others that are hilarious, except that I know there are people in this world who know who I am and with whom I worked.)

Even when the 'stratosphere boss' wrote to anyone, there was a strong protocol. Bishops (even those who were not ordinaries, and even if it was what, to anyone else, would be nearly a scratch pad memo) had to be addressed with the full honorific as a preface and the suffixes of the honorary degrees, including the mandatory fiddle-D.D. which is a courtesy title to everyone consecrated an RC bishop. One also had to remember whether one was 'respectfully' (when writing to clergy) or 'most respectfully' (bishops) His.

Oddly enough, to a large extent I believe in a high standard of etiquette. I would no sooner not rise when a clergyman, let alone a bishop, entered the room than I would walk the streets in a potato sack. It therefore became difficult to gauge who would think this plain courtesy, who would want his ring kissed as well, who would long for the days of the genuflection (I'm arthritic - I don't manage that one even in front of the tabernacle, not from disrespect but because I couldn't get up), and who, maddeningly, would say "don't get up," thereby leaving me in permanent, semi-Anglican crouch mode.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Extra terrestrial theology

Do not be misled by the title of this post - it is by no means an admission that I am in outer space most of the time (though, when one not only walks at right angles to the world, as did Francis, but is very into mystic theology, this tends to be perfectly true.) I'm recalling a situation I found highly amusing, and which nearly had me rolling on the floor screaming when I realised that some of those involved were taking it all perfectly seriously.

As a preamble, in the early days of the Internet I recall a discussion, on a theology forum, regarding life on other planets. In case this wasn't obvious, I love presenting, defending, or refuting theological arguments as much as the next person, but one such as that has real potential for being great fun. Since no one knows a thing about the topic, naturally they haven't a clue about what is true or what theological significance it may have, so possibilities and clever mental gymnastics have endless potential. Of course, despite thousands of years of scripture study and theological speculation, I think we all know, deep down, that 'epistemic distance' (I love that term) means we never know too much in any case, but developing themes affecting beings on planets unknown makes us admit this to ourselves, which we otherwise seldom do.

Of course, some of those participating were playing a game, just as was I - and among those were very clever, witty souls who really were doing so superbly. The trick was figuring out who was playing and who wasn't, and I sometimes mistook those who were not only serious but feared having their faith placed in danger for joining in the fun. How anyone could see faith as endangered under such circumstances is beyond me - they tended to be the sorts who wanted to know what was 'according to the mind of the Church,' but, to my knowledge, the Church never pronounced on human beings in any worlds except earth, heaven, and purgatory (that last being the most creative, since it involved an entire judicial system binding on the dead - and you thought disputes about authority today were extreme...) Since the existence of hell is assumed, but there's never any statement about anyone's being there except for fallen angels, even that territory remained unexplored. Granted - I've met or read the works of people, some in quite prominent Church positions, others popular authors, about whom I'd have no trouble imagining origins in some distant galaxy (and I don't mean realms celestial), but I've yet to see any scholar attempt to delve into what might be happening on some planet light-years away.

I'm not scientific in the least, and don't have a particularly vivid imagination, so the topics discussed were even weirder than some of the philosophical speculation about the after-life or resurrection. What about 'the fall'? Did Jesus' death redeem those on a planet he did not inhabit? Would those on other planets not be redeemed, or did they not 'fall' in the first place? Would believing Jesus was a source of cosmic redemption work if it involved beings on other planets, or would that be a heretical belief in parallel universes? (Heretical? Even Bernardo Guidoni never expressed a desire to burn those in other solar systems, and I cannot recall a word, even in the most appalling Inquisition accounts, about 'parallel universes.')

I'm just sorry that everyone there wasn' t playing - these lines of reasoning could have been really challenging and hilarious.

Recalling this reminded me of a yet older memory, which pre-dates the Internet but not space travel. In one church where I served, we did have some very vocal members who were always concerned about threats to the faith, often in areas which most of us had never considered. One lady, to whom I'll give the fictitious name of Alice (in my age group - sometimes the young, which we were then, can fear the collapse of the solid, old ways more than those who'd think 'if we'd known those were the good old days, we'd have enjoyed them more') was both obsessive about error and incredibly prudish. (I think she found her large brood of children in the cabbage patch. She once protested because a plastic model of a foetus had visible male organs, so I further assume her kids were born dressed.)

Pat, the most useful and delightful man on the planet, loved a row, and made sure he found ways to start them. Alice wasn't one to list her sources, but she'd heard somewhere that it was heretical to believe there could be life on other planets. It had some connection with how, had mankind not fallen, the entire universe would have been our playground. (I am guessing that was both a weak and faulty connection - there must have been a cross battery somewhere.) Pat, of course, was insisting to Alice that life on other planets just had to exist, and she was becoming very earnest.

Finally, Alice asked the priest (who knew her all too well) if it wasn't heresy to believe there could be life on another planet. Aiming at his specific target all too well, he replied, "Those on other planets never committed original sin, so they walk around without clothes on. We can't see them because we're concupiscent." (Bear with the poor man. Some time earlier, Alice had asked him if it was all right to have sex before one receives communion, to which he'd responded, "just as long as you don't block the aisles.")

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Of all the times to giggle...

Why is it that at the worst possible moments (sitting on a jury, hearing a brilliant concert, and, most of all, in church, especially at the most solemn liturgies) one will have an unexpected thought or memory that causes a fit of giggling? I well remember, for example, when I once was attending a Good Friday service (sitting towards the front, that I may see and hear). A young woman was sitting in front of me, with a beautiful infant girl, perhaps two years of age. The baby was very striking looking, but didn't have a childish expression - she had a very wise, mature, dignified manner, and resembled an infant one might see in the arms of a Byzantine Madonna. Of course, no one else would have realised what sent me into the laughing fit (least of all the Italian priest who called out to me, from the altar, "Isabella, shut up!", in broad dialect.) But the little figure in front of me had just informed her mother, with the collected dignity befitting a queen, "I pissed."

Last week, I attended a marvellous choral liturgy for Ash Wednesday. As the imposition of ashes began, I was nearly swept away by the beautiful sounds of the Miserere, and the readings and prayers already had me nearly ready to levitate, so I started up the aisle with suitable recollection... disturbed by an intensely silly memory from back when I was in my 20s.

I cannot recall, now, how I met her or why I was there (I must have been assisting her in some way), but I stayed a few days with an elderly nun once. She was on exclaustration because she'd tried to split her community when they got too secular, but had the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a makeshift chapel. (Denise had long worked in a slum neighbourhood, and her flat was on the top floor.) It was a blood hot August afternoon, the sort of heat that somehow is worst in slums, and we were so overheated that I was wearing a nightdress (and nothing else), Denise just her Josephite petticoat. Suddenly, the auxiliary bishop unexpectedly stopped by - he'd got word of her having the Sacrament, and came to take it away. Needless to say, the last thing I was expecting to do in my nightgown was meet a bishop, but Denise was unperturbed, and I was all the more embarrassed because she asked him to bless us and rose then got to her knees. (I am rather well-endowed, yet much too polite not to rise when a clergyman enters the room - and if doing so caused undue flopping on the way up, when Denise set the precedent to kneel for the blessing, I dare-say the flop-flop effect was worse by far on the way down.)

Afterwards, I told her I'd been very ill at ease. (Today I probably would have laughed - but, modest though I indeed still am, I was far more so when I was still at the age to be in permanent heat.) Denise conceded that, at her age (80 or so), it really didn't matter much whether one was modest or not, but then said to me, "Oh, we're all dust, honey!"

Of all the memories to have during the imposition of ashes... :-)

Nothing profound today, my friends - but I did think I'd share a book I am re-reading for Lent (I get more out of it each time.) Check out some of Tom Wright's best writing for the season.

Jesus and the Victory of God, Vol. 2 [JESUS & THE VICTORY OF GOD VOL]

Monday, 15 February 2010

"My dog's bigger than your dog..."

I suppose today I'll win an award for the silliest content and loosest associations in all of the many posts on this blog. This stems from my having had an unexpected thought, the sort that makes me keep my mouth shut (yes, on rare occasions I'm capable of this) at the moment, though I'll both shake my head and laugh later. I've noticed, both at church and in Internet discussions, that the annual "Lenten contest" is beginning.

I cannot remember much about this songwriter, but, if my memory serves, some years ago Tom Paxton wrote some songs aimed at his children. They would win no awards for either their melodies or lyrics, but one of them suddenly, vividly leapt into my mind. "My dog's bigger than your dog" actually captured well how children in the school-yard sound when they are trying to top one another. Alternating verses were, for example, "My dog's bigger than your dog..." then, "My dog's better than your dog - his name is King and he had puppies." It proceeded to such gems as "our car's older than your car," "my dad's louder than yours," "my mum's funnier than yours."

As my regulars well know, I'm not about to claim any particular fondness for working with children (...understatement of the century), but such traded bragging amongst kids I can tolerate (albeit from afar.) What drives me mad is when adults cannot get out of that groove. I could give many an example but, with Shrove Tuesday ahead tomorrow, I think the Lenten Contest will be best.

I've never been able to determine the origin of 'giving things up for Lent' - certainly, no one in Italy ever heard of this, and I think it's an Anglo Saxon and Celtic product. I have many a memory of kids trying to top one another with what they'd sacrifice - I suppose it was a nice enough break from "where's your old man work?" or discussion of whose parents are stricter. (Kids had no desire for strict parents, except when it was in competition.) In much the same fashion, again from a distance, I can deal with the utter lack of empathy and dignity our dear little brats have when they turn on their best friends - the silly and prurient comments of boys of twelve who suddenly see a 'double meaning' in every comment - the jokes that have a group of 9 year olds howling though most of us mortals would be at a loss to see what is funny - even the 'toilet humour' of infants who suddenly find anything remotely connected with the subject to be hilarious.

Yet I must bite my tongue, when the "I'm giving this up for Lent," "oh, I'm not only giving that up but keeping track of the money I save so I can give it to the poor," "maybe it's better if we add on more service," "I think I'd better do the vegan fast - that Western fast is too luxurious, and I only eat meat once a week anyway and I'm still fat," begins yet again. This may seem odd coming from someone who has an extensive and sometimes painful track record for pursuing ascetic theology (and preaching same, though I suppose most people I know would have loved to beg me to stop), giving to the poor (...and often being a member of that set), attending multiple services of common worship weekly or even daily, and usually falling asleep snuggled up to the Prayer Book. But I often wonder if Jesus urged those around him to give alms in secret not because they needed to smugly know (and 'subtly' announce) that they do things only for the glory of God (who, I am sure, is immensely grateful that we take the trouble to contribute to His glory...), but because he was so damned sick of hearing those who didn't.

On a serious note, I shall add that it is really sad when ascetic practises are seen as punishments for oneself. Yes, I believe in penance - in two senses. One is penance as getting our lives back in line with the gospels (surely a task enough for a lifetime.) In the other sense, I see it (and this in a positive sense - by 'consequence' I mean outcome, not necessarily negative!) as admitting that our actions have consequences. We regret or are pleased with some of our actions based on natural consequences, but I think we can forget (especially when neither worldly loss nor gain is forthcoming) that there are spiritual consequences for our actions.

With Lent being a time when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery, I'm sure I can be permitted yet one more loose association. Just recently, I began studying some of the works of Jewish scholar Jon Levenson (see links below.) Though naturally his treatment of resurrection would not be related to Jesus, his words are worth a look for Christians indeed. To cite only one point for now, Levenson treats of how, in many passages from Torah, death is not avoided but overcome. God graciously rescues worshippers from death, leading them to a renewed, or new, intimacy with Himself.

That is what is key in our penance - being open to that marvellous intimacy, and seeking to let go of the obstacles we place in its path.

Just as the Lenten contest is annual :), so is my recommendation of the books, to which I have linked below, by Margaret Funk. (They are brief, but be sure to read through them at a slow and prayerful pace.) They are the best introductions to genuine ascetic practise I have seen (and I've read through a library's worth of excellent works on the topic.) Those who are looking for an endurance test will be disappointed, and probably see the wisdom expressed (which draws on many traditions, but is particularly focused on John Cassian) as 'too luxurious.' (I'll spare anyone amplification on the 'austerity contest,' but haven't we all seen it now and then?)

Party well tomorrow, my friends. I want to see a picture where everyone smiles and says "Cana!" - Jesus knew how to feast as well as fast, and only those who can do both get a thing out of the latter. :-)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Great quote from a moralist

I wanted to share a quick idea from a French moralist, Servais Pinckaers. I love his treatment of morality, which bemoans that we think of it today as moral obligations, not "the ways of wisdom that lead to holiness and perfection...a response to the question of happiness and salvation." He presented a treatment of Romans chapters 12-15 with a marvellous emphasis. Among other points, he mentions "The Christian life is true worship. It is a liturgy where we offer (our persons) to God as a living sacrifice, discerning what is good and pleasing to Him. Soma evokes the body of Christ offered in the Eucharist and the body that forms the Church. One may therefore refer to a liturgical dimension of Christian morality." (It's awkward, because it is translated from a far more eloquent French, but I sadly no longer remember my foreign languages to any extent.)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Enough with wanting strokes of the cane

I had several conversations recently, not on related topics at face value, which, in total, left me both laughing and frowning at the product. I therefore ask my readers to bear with me as I ravel this thread.

Remember the kids who, in school days, always seemed to be in trouble? (Or dreaming up devilish ideas, then getting others to carry them out?) Looking back, they fell into two categories. A few, sad to say, were genuinely malicious - and that tended to be obvious even when they were very young. Thinking back on a few I knew as a child, I was sorry, but not surprised, to learn that they ended up involved with crime, in a few cases killed (by their associates) or imprisoned as a consequence. Yet a larger number of the 'folk heroes,' who weren't malicious but had a combination of mischief, bad temper, and a desire to be the centre of attention, coupled with a love to do lots of things to see if they could get away with them (someone else's being blamed when he was innocent would not have troubled them), grew up to be those whom one would learn, years later, were police officers. (If they were born before 1940, a significant percentage were priests. The Anglicans are married and hen-pecked, and the Roman Catholics had plenty of tough nuns to see that they had their share of hen pecking along the way. Since the quantity of nuns sharply decreased by the time the products of the war or baby boom came to maturity, thus the quantity of RC priests who'd been tough guys declined. Why young tough guys grow up to be accountable either to military authorities, police procedures, or domineering women is beyond me, but it was epidemic.)

I'm thinking of one impossible kid whom I knew (though not as a child - he was older than I - born pre-1940, and inevitably a priest and coincidentally a friar.) When he told me of the trouble he caused as a child, I was appalled. One of his favourite ways to exercise mischief was in waiting to see which neighbourhood mother hung her wash on the line (recall that this was in the days when that meant hours over the wash-tub or, at best, placing clothing through wringers, not that I'd approve even in the automatic washer/dryer era), then cut the line with a hedge clipper. Knowing he had quite a temper, I asked if this was intended as revenge - but actually he didn't target anyone in particular. He explained his motive as 'impressing the other kids.' Whether less ambitious mischief makers stopped short of clipping clotheslines lest they be punished, or others thought what he did was dreadful, he could be certain that everyone he knew would be talking about what he did that day! (That he'd later feel the sting of his mother's cane or dad's belt did not deter him.)

The (short of malicious) folk heroes often had a quality I found puzzling but amusing (other than that the RC ones made sure they wore the scapular to make sure they were saved from eternal fire in case they suddenly dropped dead. They still do. We'd all heard stories in catechism class about those who were hit by motor cars right after stealing a chocolate, and later re-appeared to friends to speak of suffering in hell. Older kids in these stories who had sex not only were killed on the spot but in some way that illustrated their fiery destiny, such as a train going up in blazes.) If they were caught, they had this need to 'take their punishment.' (A few of them even needed to tell on themselves.) Taking their punishment in no way affected future behaviour - they were cooking up further trouble within the hour. Still, most of them, in later years, would insist that being punished kept them from further trouble later. (I've no idea whether that is true or not. I suppose that, with really young children, about all that deters them from misbehaving is a fear of being punished, but older kids weren't deterred at the time. And, just for the record, I know absolutely nothing of criminal justice, so I'm not referring to that area in what follows.)

In recent weeks, I asked two questions to which no one I knew had an answer. What happened, many centuries ago but with effects that would extend well into the modern era, that took Christian focus away from Jesus' glory and our deification, and made ascetic practises of any kind (which I'd see as intended to remove distractions and foster intimacy with the Beloved) ways to 'atone for sin'? Effectively, it became a punishment. (Also a marvellous Lenten guilt trip - the poor box was never fuller than when kids were convinced that spending a penny on a treat might keep some poor soul in purgatory or cause someone in China to drop dead. Those who put in the most were the same who might have 'hooked' a chocolate at any other time of the year - see the preceding paragraph. Among adults, the biggest party animals became a great penance to others during Lent, since they refrained from foods they enjoyed, their beer and their pipes. Their friends had reasons to rejoice on Easter that had nothing to do with Christ being risen.)

My other question was sillier - but no one knows that answer, either. Referring here not to the fast or any other ancient custom - I've never been able to discover where the practise, which I believe is mainly Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, since I never heard of it in Italy at all, of 'giving things up for Lent' originated.

Well, be forewarned, my friends: I've been studying worship (surprise!) yet again, and reviewing the works of Hebrew and Christian scholars, and I'm well steeped in Franciscan concepts of penance (not Francis's own excesses, to which he freely admitted at the end of his short life), which are based on getting one's life in line with the gospels. I'll say, in brief (since I've said more than enough today), that atonement has wonderful meanings that have nothing to do with taking punishment.

As for the idea that God always wants what is most painful and difficult, and that anything we want (even if it is not remotely sinful, or is wonderful) is opposed to "God's will," or that we are so wicked by reason of the fall that we can't want anything without its being somehow bad (or, at least, 'less perfect' - weird influences from varied periods can lead to a revolting pot-pourri where one is always expected to do what is most perfect though one is capable of no good)... well, scrap the lot of them. It's not humility or charity - it is a childish desire to be punished because one has no concept of virtue - or Pelagian (think of it - we're in control when we are appeasing) - or we want to be thought superior for hating ourselves.

I'll just leave you with one thought, from scholar Klaus Koch - and this in relation to Servant of Yahweh liturgies in Isaiah. Atonement means liberation from spheres of misdeeds and consequent disaster - it is not appeasement. The attack on idols was a precedent. It is not only a concept of God as transcendent - his grace is manifested in the world. What is rejected is a God at the disposal of humans - artefacts being dependent on their maker.