What to Expect from a Saint

Over at the blorg yesterday I wrote about how, whatever St. Junipero Serra’s sins might have been, an authentic desire to evangelize is not one of them.  Figures I’d say something like that.  Today I want to address a deeper question: What are we to think about the problematic behavior of saints and other heroes?

Let’s begin with some foundational principles.

We know that the Christian faith is unchanging, and we know that the moral law is unchanging.  Murder is wrong yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Jesus Christ is the Savior of humanity yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Thus, the first thing we should look for in a saint: The moral and spiritual ideals towards which a saint strives are unchanging ideals.

–> We expect a saint to love Jesus Christ and to practice and proclaim the Catholic faith as best he or she is able.

Saints overcome obstacles, but they aren’t omnipotent.

From our lives, from common sense, and from the historical record, we can know that there are obstacles to living out our Christian ideals.

Some obstacles are internal, such as physical or mental illness.  These roadblocks to practicing the faith don’t make us less faithful.  What they do is cause us to have to put more effort into loving God, who sees and acknowledges the heart.  While some saints may have awe-inspiring external, easily-visible accomplishments to their name, others do not.

Other obstacles are created by our society, our culture, or the people around us. In another era, a saint might have been able to care for orphaned children by simply opening the doors and welcoming those in need.  In our time, extensive regulations may prevent an individual, family, or religious association from being legally allowed to provide care.

–> When we look at a saint’s life, we have to realistically assess the resources and opportunities that were available to that person living in that era.

Culture clouds our human thinking.

While the natural law is written on the human heart, we know that human beings are fallen creatures. We are tempted to do what is comfortable and self-serving, and often we let our desire for gratification color our understanding of the Gospel.

Thus it is hard for a saint, or anyone, to overcome his or her weaknesses.

Furthermore, our culture affects our ability even to contemplate what the Gospel might be asking of us.  A type of generosity or piety or morality that was encouraged and accepted in one time or place might be rare or nonexistent in another.   When a given concept of Christian morality or devotion is simply not on the radar in our own time and place, it is very, very hard to look over the walls of our native culture and consider a better way of living.

I’m hard pressed even to provide an example, because I know that for any specific suggestion I make of an area where modern Americans struggle with recognizing and articulating the faith (and some other cultures did not), my suggestion will be dismissed as “ridiculous” or “extraneous” or “old fashioned” or “obsolete” or something else.  We cannot see what lies beyond the walls of our own cultural prison.

–> We can expect a saint to respond freely and generously to those aspects of the faith which were understood and practiced in his or her culture, and to make sincere but not always successful attempts to discern and apply Christian doctrine counter-culturally.

Culture feeds certain types of piety.

In contrast, every culture has its virtues as well.  What is often very confounding in the lives of the saints are the examples of virtues that are foreign to our time, but were considered ordinary piety in the saint’s time.  Here I will give an example.

In our time, the practice of physical penance is virtually unknown.  We allow for the merits of offering up unavoidable suffering, but even that is counter-cultural.  One of the great challenges of our time is fighting evils such as abortion and euthanasia, which are fueled by a culturally-driven placing of the avoidance of suffering as the highest good.  Even Christians have difficulty understanding why some of the suffering that life brings might, at times, have to be endured when there is no moral way to avoid it.

We do have a limited understanding of the value of physical penance.  Specific acts of self-discipline are practiced by the most-rigorous of religious associations, and minor acts of self-denial are encouraged for all Catholics during the penitential season of Lent.  However, even there, in our time we always temper any mention of corporal penance with warnings not to overdo it, not to commit self-harm, and so forth.  I am absolutely at one with my wider spiritual culture in that regard.

In contrast, in other eras, we see that the benefit of physical penance was considered of greater value than the avoidance of physical harm that might result.  Hence we have countless examples of saints and ordinary Catholics and even non-Christians carrying on astonishing displays of self-inflicted or self-allowed suffering that, to our modern mind, are contrary to faith and reason.

What’s going on with that? Shouldn’t the saint have known better?

Keep in mind those cultural walls.  When your spiritual culture is telling you that xyz is the greater good . . . if your greatest desire is holiness, you will seek after that good.

–> We can expect saints to be willing to go to extremes to pursue paths of holiness encouraged in their time and place.

Saints take strange shapes.

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with saints who consistently love Jesus Christ, and everything else is a toss-up.  Saints are people who strive for holiness, but that striving is going to be shaped by his or her personal limitations, by cultural boundaries, and by the types of piety and service that are most encouraged in his or her time and place.

Saints can still surprise.  We look with special awe at those saints whose lives were wildly counter-cultural, because they stand out not only in their time but in ours.

All the same, some saints can make us uncomfortable with just how wrong they seem.  When that happens, there are three questions we should ask:

  • Is the legacy of this saint the right legacy?  Perhaps I’ve been passed a message about this saint that is honestly not what makes this saint an example of holiness.
  • Is this attribute of the saint just a plain old sin?  Every saint recognizes his or her need for the Redeemer.  Unless it’s the Blessed Mother we’re talking about, we know for a fact that some of this saint’s actions were sinful.
  • Is this attribute of the saint a virtue I need to know about?  One of the great gifts of the saints is that they allow us to peek over our cultural walls.

What we don’t need to do is be afraid.  It’s okay to have weird saints in our spiritual family tree.  We are not a religion that worships mortal men. We are a religion that worships Jesus Christ.  Allow the Lord to show when and how to learn from this or that saint, and when you need to recognize that so-and-so just isn’t the best spiritual companion for you right now.

Is this person helping you grow in love? Is this person drawing you closer to Jesus Christ?  Whether it’s a saint in heaven or someone you know here on earth, those are the qualities we look for in spiritual friendships.  It doesn’t matter whether so-and-so is so helpful to your friend or your mom or you favorite priest. Choose to surround yourself with the people who make you a better Christian.

Crystals of dried Coca-Cola: Individual rainbow-colored crystals distributed in a globe-pattern on a black background.

Photo: Crystals of dried Coca-Cola, courtesy of Wikimedia Image of the Day, CC 4.0, by Alexander Klepnev.  I was going to settle for a renaissance peoplescape of Heaven, but then there was this. So this is what you get.  Probably the best use of Coca-Cola yet.

How to Pick Comfortable Mask Fabric

TLDR: Choose any single 100% natural fabric.

Details follow.

***

The CDC has finally come around on the usage of cloth masks by the general public.  Amen.

Masks aren’t magic.  They are one piece in a whole collection of safety tactics that, when combined, make things less-bad.  It’s just like how your car has many safety features that work together with your safe driving skills, or your table saw comes with safety features that are in addition to, not instead of, your decision to always know where all your fingers are.

But covering one’s mouth and nose does help.  So do that.  This is the post where I explain to you the trick of how to cover your face with a fabric that will be relatively more comfortable.

My credentials: I spend a lot of time playing outside in a hot, humid climate.

***

Now you might live someplace cool and dry.  But your mouth and nose are little heat-n-humidity factories. The whole point of wearing a cloth mask is to keep your hot, moist exhalations to yourself.  In other words, by masking up you are getting the Southern Summer Experience plastered to your face.

Please. Allow me to guide you on how to take the edge off, because the last thing we want is your desperate panting miserable self to rip off your mask as you let out a primal scream in the Walmart checkout line.

To spare us all, here’s the fabric you need:

  • Any single
  • 100%
  • natural fiber.

Working backwards:

NATURAL means: Cotton, wool, silk, or linen.

You’ll need to get out your reading glasses to read the fine print.  Cotton is the most widely used, but any of these can work.  You may find tightly-woven silk in the upholstery department.  You may find tightly-woven linen in the form of a table cloth or napkin.  We’ll talk about wool below.

Yes, I know there are hi-tech wicking fabrics.  If you have a garment you find very comfortable in hot sweaty conditions, perhaps an old pair of hi-performance long underwear from your trekking expedition or something, have at it.

But if you must buy new fabric, buy natural because it’s widely available, cheap, and proven.  “Wicking” or “breathable” synthetics sometimes are what they promise (more likely so if coming from a reputable purveyor of technical mountaineering gear, just sayin’), and sometimes they are hype.  You’ll have to test for yourself, and not everyone has the money to gamble on tests.

Be warned: “Natural” fibers do not include, for this purpose, bamboo or other modern-day recycling projects.  Those kinda-natural inventions don’t function the way traditional natural fibers do.  Cotton, wool, linen, or silk. Those are the ones you want.

Review Q&A: What does natural mean?  It means cotton, wool, linen or silk.

100% means: ONLY the single natural fabric you have chosen, no other material of any other kind.

Your cotton skinny jeans with “just a touch” of spandex are NOT 100%.  Your cotton socks are highly unlikely to be only cotton, they probably have some kind of stretchy thing that makes them hold their shape.

Many, many, many natural fabrics used in clothing or sold at fabric stores contain either a poly-blend (looking at you, t-shirts) or a small amount of spandex or lycra to improve fit.

Read the label.  Your stash of old t-shirts probably contains both 100% cotton and cotton-poly blend t-shirts.  Read every label.  Your favorite bandanna might be 100% cotton or might be cotton-poly. Read the label.  Your worn-out wool sweater (blazer, skirt, etc.) you could never quite bring yourself to throw away (more below) might be 100% wool or it might be a wool-blend.  Read. the. label.

Review Q&A: What does 100% mean?  It means that when you read the label, it says 100% of either cotton, silk, linen, or wool, and NOTHING else.

SINGLE means: I don’t trust you with that 100% concept.

Ha!  It means this: ONLY cotton, or ONLY wool, or ONLY linen, or ONLY silk.

Linen-cotton blends, for example, are popular for summer shirts and for table linens.  This is a trick! Don’t fall for it!  Yes, the two fibers are both 100% natural. But when you blend them, you lose the comfort of a single-fiber natural fabric.

Trust me on this.  I know.

Other common combos, especially in scarves and luxury fabrics, are wool-and-silk or linen-and-silk.

These will not help you.  Do not use these in your homemade or improvised face mask or you will become a sweaty mess.  Go for a SINGLE natural fiber in your 100% natural fabric.

Review Q&A: What does single mean?  It means that your fabric is composed of only one type of natural fiber.

Readily Available Sources of Single-Fiber 100% Natural Fabric

There’s a good chance you already have something sitting around your house that can be converted into an improvised face covering.  Some sources to look for:

  • T-shirts
  • Pillowcases or sheets
  • Cloth napkins
  • Table cloths
  • Mom-jeans, Dad-jeans, and cargo shorts
  • Flannel shirts
  • Dress shirts
  • Curtains
  • Tote bags
  • Bandannas
  • Jackets

And yes, sweaters.  (See below!)  Naturally you aren’t going to cut up a perfectly good garment unless you have no other choice, but you might have something that is stained, pilled, worn through at the knees or elbows, or otherwise ready for re-purposing.

In the average household, your best bets for re-purposing are going to be:

  • That ratty old thing your husband won’t quit wearing because he loves it, but seriously, it’s time.
  • That awful dress your six-year-old loves, and insists she still wear, but hello it was her favorite when she was TWO and now not only is it permanently ketchup-marked, it is also no longer working even as a shirt.
  • The fabulous piece you got on clearance because you love the fabric, but the cut of the garment is horribly unflattering and no amount of belting or cardigans can fix that, and you need to move on.

Find these things, read the labels, and if they are a 100% natural single-fiber fabric, they are perfect for your home-made or improvised face covering.

Finally, let’s talk about wool.

Two things you need to know:

  • Usually knitted items are a very loose fabric that won’t help much for keeping your cough to yourself.
  • Wool shrinks in the wash.

If you know what you’re doing, you can use this to your advantage.  “Felting” is the process of washing and drying a wool fabric until it shrinks up into a tight fabric.  When you do this to your gorgeous handmade Christmas sweater, by accident, instead of hand-washing and laying flat to dry, you end up with a doll-sized sweater.  Oops.

But fast forward to today, when you are now eyeing up that wool garment you own that is either no longer presentable, or else it never really was suitable for any human to wear anyway, no matter how much the giver meant well when she gave it to you.

You can use this item for mask-making (having confirmed by reading the label that it is indeed 100% natural single-fiber-type wool), but first you need to felt it.  Do that by running it through the hot wash and dryer a bunch of times until it quits shrinking.

That’s it.  Not complicated.  You need to do this not only because you want to tighten-up that weave or knit, but also because it’s no good to have a mask you can’t wash and dry — you’ll just end up making doll masks.  Ha.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Okay that’s it for today’s lecture.  Remember, if you don’t want to pass out from heatstroke or infect the world in a sweat-crazed rage as you tear your drenched mask-of-misery from your overheated face, make your homemade mask out of fabric that’s:

  • 100%
  • natural
  • single-fiber

That’s 100% of or cotton or linen or silk or wool.

You’re welcome.

File:GreenMask1.jpg

Artwork: The Green Mask comic book cover, circa 1940, via Wikimedia, public domain.  This is not the right pattern for slowing the spread of respiratory illness.  Pretty sure your forehead is not a major vector of contagion.

On the other hand, let’s say it now right now: If you would also wear whatever glasses you have on hand when you must venture out, that, too, would add yet another layer of protection, however minimal.

 

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Lenten Metaphors for Non-Gardeners

So there’s this image circulating in my diocese, which I will not publish lest I propagate weeds, that shows a seedling and a Ven. Fulton Sheen quote. It’s not a bad quote.  Here’s the latter part of it, which does not accompany the seedling:

A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

Absolutely true.  And with that conclusion attached, the beginning makes perfect sense:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.

The trouble is that if you have just the beginning portion, and also you garden, the incomplete quote is nonsense.

You have to weed.  You have to prune.  Sometimes you have to irrigate, sometimes you have to anti-irrigate. You have to mulch, and you have to rake away would-be mulch that harbors disease.  You have to select the right plants for the right micro-climate, and sometimes that means moving a plant to a better location.  Sometimes you need to thin out plants that have grown in too densely, and other times you allow a plant to fill in copiously so that it suppresses weeds.

Sometimes you want to have annuals growing in that enormous planter by the front door, but the cat keeps sleeping in the dirt and rolling on your flowers, so you have to find a little flower pot to put inside the big flower pot, so that you can have your cat and your flowers too.  Definitely a metaphor for the spiritual life, because the cats aren’t going away any time soon.

Lent means spring, and in spring we do all these things, and also we worry about cold snaps getting the plum blossoms, so . . . probably that is the only applicable Lenten metaphor that stands on its own: Quit worrying about your plums, there’s nothing you can do and anyway they always get some nasty rot in June if you do get fruit, so why do you even bother? — Attributed to St. Francis, St. Augustine, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ven. Fulton Sheen is absolutely right, the goal of weeding is so that your garden can flourish.  The goal is not to create sterile ground, free of all life.  So make sure your Lenten weeding, if that’s what your soul needs this year, is ordered towards cultivating your love of God.

The feel-good abridged version? Makes one sound like one of those ignorant types who imagines farming unskilled labor.  It is not.

Obviously you need to plant the good seed of faith or else your weeding is to no purpose.  Obviously you need to be careful in your weeding so you don’t uproot your fragile faith.

And here’s an advanced gardening tip: With enough years experience, you can start making educated decisions about what weeding to prioritize, because you understand better which weeds propagate when and how, which are most likely to cause serious problems, what times of year (or weather-week) each are easiest to root out, and which plants that seemed like weeds will actually help your garden flourish.

Thus we get to the moral of today’s rant:  If you can tell a weed of vice from the seedling of faith you are trying to cultivate, feel free to root out the vice this Lent if you so discern.

Up to you.  It’s your Lent.  To quote GK Chesterton some smart person on Catholic Twitter (not me): The Internet is not your spiritual director.

Me holding a vase with mint rooting in it.

Photo: Continuing with our photo-penance at least one more day, here’s me holding a vase with mint in it.  I was weeding the mint bed and accidentally pulled up this cutting, so I stuck it in water and let it root, and soon I’ll put it in the ground.  “Soon.”

Meanwhile, here is your deep spiritual metaphor from the garden for today: If you root mint or basil or any other easily-rooted plant on your kitchen windowsill in the summer, every few days you need to dump the glass jar, rinse it out, and thoroughly rinse the roots of the plants as well.  Otherwise you’ll have mosquitoes.*

You have to rinse even the plant roots because the mosquito larvae will stick to them.  And that is a perfect metaphor for __[fill in the blank] __.  I’m sure you can think of something. Probably related to Pentecost.  Since it’s a summer** metaphor.

 

*Unless you live someplace without mosquitoes.  If that’s you, kindly give up gloating for Lent.  We don’t want to hear about your magical land.  I bet your plums don’t rot either.  Hush.

*By “summer” we mean “when the mosquitos are.”

Q&A: What Does it Take for a Rosary to “Count”?

On another forum the question was raised, and if it’s being asked there then it is probably of interest elsewhere: What does it take for a rosary to “count”?  If you want to be able to honestly claim you prayed the rosary, what is the minimum that must be done?

My answer . . .

There are some very limited situations where it matters whether your rosary “counts”:

  1. If it is the penance assigned to you in Confession. If so, follow the instructions in a booklet or similar resource on how to pray the rosary; presumably the priest who assigned the penance has such a thing on hand or else confirmed in advance you knew how to pray the penance.
  2. You are committed to praying the rosary daily because of your affiliation with a religious order or apostolate, such as being an auxiliary member of the Legion of Mary. If so, follow the instructions set forth by the organization to which you belong.
  3. You’ve pledged to say a rosary on someone’s behalf, and you were quite specific it would be a rosary, not just prayers in general. If so, go with booklet instructions as above.

Otherwise: Doesn’t matter. It’s you and God spending time together loving one another. Think of it as going on a date . . . you wouldn’t spend your time wondering whether the date “counted”.  I hope?

UPDATED

Over in the discussion group, a reader kindly reminds us that if you wish to receive a plenary indulgence for praying the rosary, there are instructions on that.  Which you’ll want to keep straight.

Two nice links to go with the update:

Enjoy.