The Best Part of “Serving the Poor”

This spring, #3 and I have been volunteering about three times a month at either the shower-in-laundry place or the homeless-people clothing closet.  At S&L we move laundry through the machines, clean showers between users, keep track of who’s in line for a shower next, and make sure the supplies are in order.   At the HPCC, we’re back-end.  Elderly ladies with a firm disposition for taking no nonsense deal directly with the client; we naive pushovers sort through donations, take a look at the current inventory and decide what to send on to outlying ministries, and get the rest logged in and put away.

This is enjoyable work for many reasons.

It is relaxing.  You set aside all your other worries and just focus for a couple hours on getting a useful and manageable task accomplished.

It is companionable.  The other volunteers and the clients are interesting, fun people to be with.  For my daughter and me, it’s something we can do together, and we end up working more and more as a team.

It is satisfying.  You never wonder, “Did that guy really need a shower?”  Yes.  He needed a shower.  You made it possible for him to have one.  Done.  Likewise, no one comes and asks someone else’s grandmother to pick out second-hand shoes and clothes for them unless they really, truly, need some shoes and clothes.

It is refreshing.  After you’ve waded through enough sophisticated blather over the years from non-homeless people, it’s nice to be around people who have no particular social skills.  They just want a shower and some shoes, done.  We don’t ask you to listen to a talk about Higher Things or make a promise that you’ll never drink and you’ll always work really hard. We just tell you when the shower’s ready.

It is edifying.  Here are friends joking together, family members proud of each other, worried about each other, looking after each other, telling stories about each other — all this beautiful humanity in front of your face.  Everyone has a story of home, even when home is outside.

All these things I love.  But there’s something that keeps moving me most, week after week: The generosity of total strangers.

This week we had to stop off at St. Urban’s on the way to S&L.  “Oh, by the way, tell them down there we’ve got a pile of stuff the Sodality of Mary collected.”  #3 & I took a look at the pile, determined it would fit in our freshly-emptied front seat, and brought it ourselves.

This whole stack of things was exactly what S&L needed.  Late in the afternoon, after the waiting area had emptied, we sorted through the stuff to put away.  You have toothbrushes or lotion or shampoo, and you go to put it away, and discover the amount on the counter is the right amount to fill the gap on the supply shelves.  Here’s something we almost ran out of, but church ladies took up a collection and now we have it, just when we need it.

***

Every week when we’re pouring detergent or spraying disinfectant or setting a few more miniature bars of soap in the bin by the towels, we’re holding someone else’s generosity.  None of that stuff comes from grants or government-supply.  It’s all collected a piece at a time by people all over the city who’ve gone through the trouble of gathering supplies together and getting them delivered.

Imagine having the job of opening and delivering 500 hundred Valentines a week.  Then imagine that they weren’t love letters between boyfriend and girlfriend or parent and child, but rather each one said:

Dear Person Who Matters to Me,

I’ve never met you, I know your life sucks and people don’t want to be around you and some of it might even be your own fault, but I’m glad you’re here in my town with me.  I care about you, and I want to make your life a little bit better, and I want you to know you are not alone.

Love,

Your Secret Friend.

If you got to catalog and count and deliver box after box of that sort of love?

You would like that job.

Vintage Detergent Advertisement, circa 1948 File:The Ladies' home journal (1948) (14785694143).jpg

Artwork from Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Concerning Ferocity

Arguing about the “Fearless Girl” statue is old sport now.  Pause for a moment and take a look at a completely different argument.  Here is  Zachary D. Schmoll at The Public Discourse: “Physician-Assisted Suicide Tells People Like Me That Our Lives Are No Longer Worth Living.

As a man with a physical disability, I need a lot of help to perform many basic daily activities. I still consider myself to be an independent thinker, but my physical independence is substantially limited by my severely reduced muscle strength. I need help to drive my van, get dressed, prepare my meals, and complete other daily tasks. For me, this is life. For many others, this level of dependence is motivation to consider bringing life to an end.

If you are wondering why the supporters and detractors of the Fearless Girl both seem to have a point, the point is implied by Schmoll: We are suffering from a fortitude-deficiency.

I give the benefit of the doubt to writers who create super-fighter female characters.  Aren’t all superheros a stretch of the imagination?  It is not necessary to have a feminist agenda to identify with a girl-fighter character.  There is the appeal of the underdog; there is the charm of the unlikely hero.  Quick art relies on facile stereotype: If you want “artistic tension” write yourself a hulking ballerina or a grandmother who hates crochet, done.  Thus one can object to fighter-girls on the grounds of bad artistry, sometimes.  To my mind, the main offense of the female super-fighter character is that she’s mostly hired for the job of over-filling her super-bikini.

Girls are not for that.

I know girls who fight with swords, or play rugby, or do other things that require physical toughness.  They do not fall out of their clothing.  Also, they are women, not wannabe-men.

It should require no proof or explanation that men and women are different from each other.  Faced with a culture determined to argue against the self-evident, conservatives sometimes lapse into stereotypes in order to make that point. Stereotypes fail because men and women resemble each other intensely. We all have wrists and necks and breasts and jaws and feet, which tend to be different between men and women, but the tendencies are not absolute.  It isn’t that women have flippers and men have tentacles; we all have hands.  A male hand and a female hand resemble each other far more than either one is like a dog’s paw or a horse’s hoof.

So it is with human emotions, human reasoning, and human passion.  There are differing tendencies between men and women, but other than motherhood and fatherhood and your part in the act that gets you there, there is nothing in the human experience that is the exclusive province of only men or only women.  A man is sensitive and compassionate and nurturing in a masculine way by definition: If it is a man expressing those traits, he is doing it in a way that men do it.

Women identify with traits likes toughness because toughness is a feminine trait as surely as it is a masculine one.  Like hands or feet or ear hair, there are differences in how that toughness tends to express itself in the lives of women compared to the lives of men.  But it is certainly there.

If you do not think women are made for feats of intense physical difficulty and danger, I fear your parents owe you an apology: That story about the stork is just a myth.

You are here on this earth because a woman gave birth to you.

Oh, but that’s not the same as manly physical difficulty and danger!  No, it isn’t.  A man’s body is made to express its strength and daring in a different way.  Strength and daring are not male traits or female traits; they are human traits.  As with hands or feet, there tend to be differences between men and women in the embodiment of those traits. But if we try to say that physical toughness and daring are solely the province of men and not women, we don’t end up with a definition of masculinity; we end up with an argument for abortion.

We are a culture that values not toughness but power.  It isn’t fortitude we treasure but autonomy.  It isn’t the ability to endure great trials that we prize, it is the ability to conquer decisively.  If there is real danger? We want an out.

Life involves danger and pain.  From the moment of conception to the last breath, danger and pain are risks we all run, and sooner or later both will overtake us.

The fundamental argument for abortion is this: I would rather you die than that I suffer.

The fundamental argument for euthanasia is this: We would rather you die than that we suffer.

The fundamental argument for assisted-suicide is this: I would rather I die than that I suffer.

We talk a big talk about being “fierce” but actually we are cowards.  We are only “fierce” in the face of bronzed threats — frozen solid, unable to harm us.  We can stare down a picture of danger all afternoon; real danger makes us proud to run and hide.

A ferocious beast will kill for its own gain.  It is not ferocity but fortitude that we humans undervalue.  We like these girls who fight because we know deep inside that we humans are created for the fight.  We are created for living dangerously, and for facing the trials of our life unflinching.

File:Budapest kunst 0010.tif Virgin Mary with St. Barbara and St. Catherine of Alexandria

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia: The Virgin Mary with saints Barbara and Catherine of Alexandria.  I dunno, were those girls all that tough?  Hmmn.

Ushers of Divine Mercy

Saturday afternoon found me in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and in need of a trip to the confessional.  (No, I’m not scrupulous.  Just wretched.)   Holy Cross Catholic Church is about the size of a large convenience store, done in the style of 1970’s Neo-Traditional with a vigorous nod to Appalachian folk art.  Like the town itself, it is everything lovely and nuts and comfortable and joyful about American popular culture, Southern style.

For all that the parish embodies Americana, Holy Cross has something I’ve almost never seen in any of the many parishes I’ve visited: A greeter at the door during the hour for Confessions.

It makes sense of course.  If you know you’re likely to have visitors, it’s logical that you’d want to be ready for them.  I showed up, and the usher, with name tag and friendly welcome suited to his post, pointed out where the confessional was and where the line was forming and generally made sure I was all set.

Pigeon Forge is a small town in a rural county, and on any given Saturday the bulk of the Catholics on the ground are probably not parishioners.  I don’t think people usually come to Pigeon Forge for the purpose of confessing, though if you wanted to make the trip for that purpose, I can vouch for the place in that regard.  I do know that a lot of people come to Pigeon Forge for other reasons, and every single one of those visitors is a dreadful sinner just like the rest of us.  A few of them perhaps want to give the soul a good sprucing up after a visit to the Nike Clearance Store (or whatever else it is people do in town — evidence is I did that).

I suspect the parish has a particular charism for the Sacrament of Penance and for Divine Mercy.  In addition to the artwork in the nave and sanctuary, on the Lighthouse Media display rack in the lobby, there were exactly two talks on CD available for you to take home: Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession” and a Spanish-language version of Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession.”  Somebody wants you to be good and forgiven.

CD cover art courtesy of Lighthouse Talks / Augustine Institute.

FYI if you dislike face-to-face confession, be assured that as you step into the combination classroom / office / confessional / room-with-a-view, there’s a solid screen with a kneeler so you have the option of confessing anonymously if you so desire.  If you’ve ever sat in line at the parish, you know why I’m making that assurance. Don’t panic when you see people sitting in the window. You have other options.

Easter Report: Five Good Things

#1 Fr. Gonzo finishes strong. I probably shouldn’t call him that, it might encourage him.  The man who gave me this thing forty-something days ago decided to launch, his words, the “Mother of All Easter Vigils.”  If that man left out even a single speck or jot of an option, as found or legitimately inferred in ye olde Roman Missal, please, not a word.  Also next year, I’m having a nap and a cup of coffee before the vigil.  Or else just doing like last year and going to the Sunday evening Easter Mass, which was quite nice and ought to be offered more widely.

#2 There was a bacon accident.  Sometimes people are like, “Oh you’re a homeschooler? Could you make me a craft and a casserole?” These are the very same people who would squirm if I said, “Oh you work in an office?  Could you make me a 1040x and a manuscript proposal?”  So anyway, I tried making bacon in the oven Sunday morning, and I did it by following the directions on the package.  More or less.

The difficulty is that it came out perfect.

Perfect bacon is cooked to the point of extreme crispiness, just short — but nearly to the point — of crumbing at an untoward glance.

Sadly, the man I married and many of our offspring are under the impression that bacon is meant to be sort of chewy and moist.  I’m okay with that.  All bacon is good to me.  I will totally put on my inner St. Therese and eat wet bacon.  No problem.  Canonize me now.

But I accidentally cooked the bacon too long, and it was extremely, very, astonishingly good.  The difficulty is that there wasn’t any spare bacon to undercook for the other people, and that was kind of sad.  I’m open to continuing practice on this art until I nail it.  Eight weeks of Easter calling my name.

#3 First child trained in the ways of the IRS! It’s pleasant having Easter after the taxes go in.  I literally dropped off four envelopes at the post office on the way over to the Vigil.  Mr. Boy got A Real Job last summer, which means he had a real tax return (two – one federal, one state) this spring.  I had him do the process step by step on his own, and then I’d check it and show him what he did wrong (if anything — a 1040EZ isn’t that hard, even if it’s more complicated than it used to be), and he’d fix it, and we’d move on to the next thing.

It is well worthwhile to start doing your taxes on your own right from the beginning, and to keep with it year after year as things slowly get more complicated.  Pays off in the long run.

#4 Fedex is a wondrous thing.  It’ll be three kids and I on the big trip this summer, and I ordered those three some useful books to prep for the trip and work on their French.

FYI of all the suppliers I found, Decitre.Fr had the best deal on international shipping if you’re looking at many low-budget books rather than one expensive book.  Each kid received a book on the Mass. The boy received two history books and an atlas.  The girls each received a coloring book on Alsace (primary destination), a second coloring book on a relevant topic (history for one, all-things-Christian-faith for the other — between the two, they’ll have encountered most museum, historical site, and art-related vocab), and a book of personal interest for motivating the reading practice (cats or rabbits).

I went with cheap books because I wanted them physically light and compact, and intellectually not too intimidating.  That also allowed for a slight overflow on the order, so duds could be culled and everyone still get good books.  –> Not true duds, but a couple of the books that looked nice on the internet turned out to be either too little-kid or else too difficult for a beginning student of the language; I set those aside for me.

Anyhow, on international orders there’s not an option (with Decitre) to have books sent in sub-packages, and I knew a few of the books would take a couple weeks to be ready to ship.  So when I got the shipping notice Spy Wednesday, I figured it would be a late Easter?  Nope.  Packaged Wednesday morning, queued at CDG by Wednesday evening, onto a plane and into my local Fedex office Thursday morning.  I went out for a walk Thursday morning, and as I was coming back to my yard at 9AM the Fedex mini-van showed up with a package for me to sign.

You didn’t used to be able to get foreign books this easily.  I like the modern world.

#5 Journaling Bibles.  So that left one child with no books in her basket, because: Poor planning.  The Easter Bunny was pretty pleased she’d gotten to Aldi to pick up Not-Slave-Labor chocolate, thanks.  So then the bunny remembered this argument from a month earlier.  The girl is in the FCA at school, and apparently all her friends have “journaling” or “notetaking” Bibles.  These are Bibles with wide margins or other white space where you can essentially illuminate your own manuscript.

Could she have one for Confirmation please?  And how about right now, so the Holy Spirit can get to work ASAP?

The difficulty is this: Apparently Catholics have given up on illuminating, or else we just don’t publish trend-Bibles — I’m sure our publishers are full of good excuses for the lapse.  The situation is bad enough that Catholic Icing has a great tutorial about how to convert your Catholic Bible into a journaling Bible by covering up the footnotes with bits of paper.

A girl I know does not want to cover up footnotes with bits of paper

Thus in the spirit of Easter is For Heretics, Too, I caved.  On the way home from Costco with all the Easter food, I did check my local Catholic bookstore to see if there was something, anything, that I could pass off as a journaling Bible, but no dice.  (There are lots of great Catholic Bibles out there, by the way.  Just not ones for coloring in.)  But after that, into the breach: Walmart for Bible-shopping it would be.

[Sheesh, guys, I’m buying some unapproved-translation, books-missing Bible for coloring in, I’m not shelling out a lot of money on this, really??]

Walmart is smarter than a Catholic publisher.  They carry a mass-market, paperback version the HCSB Illustrator’s Notetaking Bible, and it’s easy to find if you go to the book section — shelved both with Bibles and with adult coloring books, since it’s both a Bible and a coloring book.  The inside looks like this:

My child wasn’t looking for one that was pre-illustrated, but we both secretly like it.  Some of the illustrations are very apropos, such as the image of Christ Crucified in the margins next to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy.  I could do without Mary With Rosy Cheeks, but Catholics have done far worse to the Blessed Mother and somehow the Church still stands.

My teenager spent her afternoon working on her Bible.  Her younger sister said, “We should have brought these to that retreat last month!”  I think I can work with this trend.

Easter Egg Wreath by #3.  Leaving a child alone with a hot glue gun has its advantages.  For more on the cost of becoming a Pinterest Parent, see here. Okay, I see the photos aren’t loading anymore.  I’ll fix that and update. [Update: Okay – all fixed now, I hope!]  The text explains the less-pretty parts of the crafting life. 

 

A Love Fully Human and Fully Divine

I always have trouble when Christians say, “Jesus had to die on the cross in order to save us.”  It makes me think: I suspect God could have saved us however He liked.

But He did it this way, so here we are.

Humans are thick about the nature of God.  You’ve just been created out of dust and given domain over the earth, and yet you’re unclear on God meaning what He said when He told you not to eat that one fruit.  Never mind ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army — did God really say . . .?

The Godliness of God is hard for us to grasp.

Even harder, judging from the pagan pantheons and our own understandable tendency to despair in the face of so much evil, is believing that God is good.  The gods of myth are fickle and self-serving; they come to our aid when it suits their own cause, not ours.

Thus the Incarnation.  Here comes God in the form of a man, which the mythical gods have done in their way, but this one is different.  This one loves the way that men love when they are very, very good men.

Mostly we humans like to push off thinking too carefully about love, because what we want is for the satisfaction of the present moment’s desire to be counted as “good enough.” But we do know real live goodness when we see it.  We honor the sacrifices of those who have given of themselves for others.  We know deep in our hearts that the very best people, the ones who embody Goodness itself, are those who care entirely about others and don’t consider what it might cost to give, they just give.

We know that.

And we’re not very bright about what God is like, so it is helpful for us to see that when God is a man, He loves the way that the very best men love.

***

There were good men living in the time of Jesus, just like there are good men living now.  Men who were heroic in their willingness to do what others needed them to do, in the mission of love and justice and mercy.  The Samaritan.  St. Joseph.  St. John the Baptist.  No doubt others as well.

Pontius Pilate was given the chance to be a heroic man.  His wife had been warned in a dream concerning Jesus, and passed on that message to her husband: Don’t mess with this guy.  Let him go.  Gentleman, recall that you chose your wife for this purpose. You elected her to be the one person whose advice you value most, so don’t squirm when she gives it.

He could have been a heroic man, sacrificing himself for the sake of love, justice, and mercy.  He knew very well that Jesus was innocent — he said so himself.

Instead he chose to be the coward of cowards.  What is the suffering of one innocent man compared to the danger I face?  And it was danger.  He was facing the end of everything, and so he pushed away the plain truth and talked himself into the crucifixion.

***

I do this all the time.  I push away what I know to be the right thing to do, because I do not want to lose some good I’ve convinced myself is more urgent.

***

The difference between God and us is that He’s God and we aren’t.  He’s all-powerful, our powers are limited.

We are capable of being fully human.  We are capable of being entirely the persons God created each of us to be.  We are capable of choosing heroic sacrifice rather than cowardice.  But we would still only be men.  Limited.

God-made-Man remained fully God even as He took on the fullness of humanity as well.   As man, he could be fully the best sort of man, giving of himself entirely.  But He was still God, and thus His powers were not limited.

***

Think of the best people you know.  Perhaps you have moments when you would gladly sacrifice yourself for someone else.  Perhaps you are a parent who would do anything to take on the suffering of your child so that your child can be spared.  Perhaps you see someone in grave danger, and know that if you could, you would give over even your very life to rescue that person.

Sometimes we get the chance to act on that impulse, but usually we don’t.  No matter how fully your heart is filled with generosity and a willingness to sacrifice, your powers are limited.  You would joyfully give your life to save that starving orphan in the war-torn country, but you can’t. You are limited by distance and other obstacles.   Maybe you can’t even give your life adopting some local orphan, because your means or the local bureaucracy or the other people who already require your help prevent you from being able to rescue that other one.

You and I can give everything we have, but we can’t give it to everyone.

***

We also can’t cause our sacrifices to do exactly what we want done.  My abilities are limited.  I can save some people in some situations, but other problems are beyond my powers.  I lack the mechanism to make the rescue happen.

***

Fully Man, Jesus was the best of men.  He was willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others.

Fully God, the power of His sacrifice is not limited.

He can save everyone, everywhere, everyhow.

He can breathe into dirt and cause humans to live on earth.  He can hang on a cross and cause humans to live in eternity.

He has the willingness and also the ability.

File:Caravaggio flagellation.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

FYI we have a family custom of unplugging for the Triduum.  Some of us will still be on the machine doing things like taxes and homework, but if you’re looking for me, I finally have a legitimate excuse for being gone.  Happy Easter!

Lent Day 43: Not Doing It

Wednesdays are traditionally the glorious mysteries.  I finally got back to praying the Rosary today after a gaping hiatus caused by a succession illness (it is a physical act, and thus requires one or another physical abilities), chaos, and inertia.

What was on my mind as I prayed was my inability to accomplish certain tasks before me, and thus my reliance on God to take care of them.  This is a good problem, because relying on me is not the wisest course, and in any case the tasks are God’s.

Here is a miracle, to give you an idea of the scope of the whole thing: I made a craft.  Not just any craft; one that required both bright colors and straight lines.  Also, I had to do it with supplies that I didn’t have spares of, which meant everything had to be done exactly right the first time.  No sane person assigns me a job like this.  Just never.

So anyway, I get around to the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Do you know what our Lady did during that mystery?

Nothing.

Just laid there.  Didn’t lift a finger.

God did it.

This seems to be the way it works.  Want me to conceive the Messiah? I can’t do that Lord, but however you want to handle this go ahead.  Out of wine?  Son, could you take care of this please?  So you’re saying the plan is that you’re going to die on that cross–? I’m just gonna stand here, and you figure out what the system is.

It’s not that Mary does nothing.  It’s that she does only the part she can do, and lets God worry about the rest.

 

***

Request: If you have a charism for bringing empty jars to the attention of our Lord, please consider joining the newly-formed Catholic Evangelization and Discipleship Intercessory Prayer Team group on Facebook.  It’s a closed group, but any member can add new members.  If you are in the work of discipleship or evangelization and would like people to pray for your mission, please join and post your requests.  (Also: Introduce yourself and I’ll add you to the pinned post of who’s who at the top.) Thank you!

 

File:Albert Cornelis - Assumption of the Virgin - ES BRHM BPV 009 12.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

Lent Day 25: Suscipe

The Annunciation should be a bigger feast than it is.

The chocolate chip cookies at lunch were especially good, but I assure you I say this for theological reasons.  I mean seriously, kids: It’s the Annunciation!  It’s the re-beginning of EVERYTHING.  Sheesh.  Festivate!

Also: St. Ignatius is the man.

More also: We’ve got some mighty good priests in this country.

And that’s all for now, back to the feast.  Have a good one!

 

File:Caravaggio - The Annunciation.JPG

Of course I picked the Caravaggio.  I couldn’t be expected to do anything other, once I learned it existed.  View the image detail, the better to feast upon.  [Public Domain, via Wikimedia.]

Wikipedia, by the way, has a nice article on the word suscipe.

Lent Day 5: Cheesecake??

As Scott Reeves explains so well, Lent is more than just a self-help program.  That said, if you aren’t going to gather up the fortitude to reckon with your near occasions of sin during Lent, when will you?

That is the rationale behind our resolution to eliminate extraneous sugar from the family diet.  We theorize, but aren’t certain, that at least one of our children would benefit from a diet with relatively less sugar and relatively more fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates; we suspect that making that transition will improve the mental health of everyone, directly and indirectly; thus it’s a switch that, we think, will make it easier for all of us to become more like the people God created us to be.

That’s the hypothesis.  We’re testing it during Lent because honestly it’s hard to make yourself give up something good, easy, and pleasant when you aren’t even sure it matters.

With that in mind, SuperHusband went to Costco.

“Please don’t bring home more of those yogurt things,” I asked him before he left.  Yogurt in itself is not a problem food, but the individual servings of flavored yogurts the kids devour like starved goatherds come with a piles of extra sugar.

“But [certain child with low appetite] loves them, and they’re mostly healthy,” SuperHusband observed.

“Well, just look at the nutrition information and do the best you can,” I said.

So he and our reluctant eater went off to Costco and came home with . . . cheesecake.

Um, darling?  Lent?

Outside of the penitential seasons, we always get some kind of good treat for Sundays.  But during Advent and Lent I tend to scale back — not a hard and fast rule, mind you, but let’s just say that a giant tray of cheesecake is more Easter-Christmas-Birthday than Sackcloth-and-Ashes.

SuperHusband explained: “I looked at all the nutritional information, and this one had the best fat-to-sugar ratio of just about anything.  A bazillion times better than those yogurts.”

I believe him.  We’d acquired this particular cheesecake a few weeks ago for a birthday party, and it was noticably better than typical, and it was not overly-sweet at all.  Very much in the real-food category of convenience items.

Okay, then.  My goal isn’t to satisfy some preconceived image of what is and is not “penitential” enough to satisfy the St. Joneses.  My goal is to meet the unusual but pressing nutritional needs of one of our children.   Cheesecake to fulfill our Lenten resolution it is.

 

File:Raised slice- 10-18-15.jpg - Picture of a whole cheesecake with one slice removed and being held up by the spatula.
You want to know what penance is? Scrolling through Wikimedia looking for just the right picture of cheesecake . . . and not eating any of your kids’ cake sitting in the fridge. No need for a hair shirt here, thank you.

 By Sirabellas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lent Day 4: The Chicken of Vengeance

SuperHusband prays morning and night prayer per iBreviary, and when I’m around I pray along with him.  Usually he does the bulk of the reading and I get the responses, but this morning he is hoarse with a wicked sore throat, so I was the reader.

It’s a different experience.  When he reads, I get to sit back and listen and my thoughts can range over the psalms as they come my way.  As the person responsible for pronouncing all the words, in contrast, there’s no time for anything but quick thoughts.  Unlike lectoring, especially for a big event, where you take time ahead to pray over the readings and practice them a bit, morning prayer is dashed off on the spot.  Unlike praying one of the hours by yourself in silence, when there’s someone else waiting on you, you can’t just stop and ponder at will.

You get one shot at the reading, cold, no stops.

Another difference is that when an idea strikes you, it strikes and sticks and there’s no considering just how apt it is, because you’ve got to keep moving.  But the imagery can be quite vivid.  For example: Chickens.

The verse that got me was this:

Though the wicked spring up like grass and all who do evil thrive:
they are doomed to be eternally destroyed.

Our Lent down South takes place during true spring.  Plum trees are in blossom, azaleas are working on it, the camellias of winter are fading away and the daffodils are long since awakened.  The early grasses are bright and vigorous and lush, though they’ll give way in a few months to the stubbornly invasive weed-grasses of summer.  All year long, the various grasses take their turns at conquest.

But they cannot withstand the ravages of the chicken.

If a chicken decides she wants a square a dirt, that square of dirt she will have, and everything in it.  The chicken does not care what your plans are.  The chicken landscapes as she will, and if you wish to make her cooperate with your plans, you’d best set firm boundaries delineating which earth is hers and which is yours.

And so, reading this morning, I could not help, of course, to imagine the Avenging Angel as a chicken.  They’re both winged.  They are both, to their prey, a fearsome specter.  If ever a great chicken comes to destroy you, be afraid.

A chicken in the background on dirt, separated by heavy fencing from a bed of lush grass in the foreground.
Chicken prison. Because she may not have my strawberries.

My Fish is More Penitential Than Your Fish

Is your fish penitential enough?

I’m not sure to what extent my friends are joking and to what extent they are serious, but that’s what they’re talking about.  Such-and-such lenten-compliant food is far too good be considered a penance.  You must eat this-and-so instead!

No.

No, no, no, and no.

If your idea of being a good Catholic is to find a way to thwart the spirit of the law by wallowing in luxury, you have problems.  Your problems will not be fixed by a greasy fish sandwich.

What the Church asks is that we abstain from meat on Fridays, done.  That’s the law.  What she also asks is that we take on a spirit of penitence throughout the season of Lent, with particular attention to Fridays and perhaps some relaxation on Sundays, depending.  That’s the pastoral guidance.

If you find abstaining from meat to be easy, congratulations.  The way is wide open for you to take on other more rigorous disciplines.

If you find abstaining from meat to be difficult, give it your best.  It’s not fair, perhaps, that this particular discipline is so much more difficult for you than it is for other people, but then again the crosses of this life never are distributed exactly the same to each one.  If you are overwhelmed by the rigors of Lenten abstinence, speak to your pastor.  Seek advice particularly if you have some medical reason you probably should not abstain, but you aren’t quite sure.  The Church isn’t seeking to sink you.

So what about lobster and sushi?

Let’s back up and ask ourselves: Is it acceptable to eat such luxuries on other days of the year?

The answer, I maintain, is that it depends.  Now if you observe a life of solidarity with the poor to such an extent that you would never eat such a thing, then you surpass me exceedingly and I don’t really know why you are reading this blog.  Please carry on with your devotion and do not let me dissuade you.

If, at the other extreme, you are a thoroughly wretched creature, devoted to nothing but your own pleasure from moment to moment, and that is what motivates your eating of lobster and sushi and gold-crusted cheeses carried on the backs of famished peasants who crawl through tunnels and tiptoe around lava pits to bring you the rarest and most precious of delicacies . . . how about you have a fish sandwich just to see what it’s like?

Said more seriously: Don’t delude yourself into thinking that observing the letter of the law is a Get Out of Hell Free pass.  (There is such a thing, but it doesn’t involve eating lobster. Or fish sandwiches.)

Those of us who live in the middle have to exercise the virtue of prudence concerning our own plates, and the virtue of Minding Your Own Business concerning the plates of others.  While we ought not excuse ourselves too lightly from the rigors of penance, there are any number of reasons that on some Friday in Lent the eating of a relatively luxurious item might in fact be entirely consistent with a sound spiritual life.

–> To evaluate, take into account both the particular circumstances of the meal at hand and the context of your Lenten observances overall.

  • Do you have other better choices?
  • Is this a special occasion?
  • Do you even get to choose the menu, or are you at someone else’s mercy?
  • Are you making a suitable effort to be penitential this Lent?
  • Or are you just cruising along all week with no regard for the spirit of the season?
  • Is this item in fact a gratuitous luxury compared to your other options, or does it just have that reputation as a byword?

But in all cases, you are only evaluating your personal spiritual life.  I hope you do that all year.

Related:

Scott Reeves has an excellent post on what penance is, and why and how it helps us.

And from me . . .

Lenten Tactics: Thwarting the Meat Demon

More Strategizing for Meatless Fridays

About the Required Penances – Some thoughts on the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox approaches to Lent, and the value of each.

 

File:Thomas Morus Franz van den Wyngaerde.jpg

Artwork: The patron saints of careful distinctions. Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].