Priorities, or For the Love of Butter

First, the funny story.

A friend of mine had just had a baby.  The baby was fussy and spitting up a lot, and so she thought the baby might be reacting to the cows’ milk my friend was drinking.  She might have to cut out dairy.

She was willing quit milk, cheese, and the like, for the good of her baby, despite her great love of these foods.  Butter was another story.  Surely there was a way to not have to give up butter.  It turned out that dairy was not the problem (we can all breathe a sigh of relief with her!), but the whole situation (isn’t it funny how these things work?) left her with a slightly harrowing spiritual insight.

You see, she is an Orthodox Christian, and to keep Lenten and other fasts, she *should* have been giving up dairy to keep the fast.  Of course she was often nursing or pregnant, and so didn’t have to keep the fast strictly.  But really, she supposes she could have given up butter and cheese and been none the worse off.

Her spiritual insight?  That she has disordered loves.  She loves, in order, 1. butter (which she was determined to find a way to keep in her diet); 2. her baby (for whom she would give up cheese); 3. cheese; and 4. God (for whom she would not give up butter or cheese).  Of course, we all want to be able to say that God is at the top of this list.

So that is a lovely story about our priorities in life, and self-reflection, and how God can use all kinds of situations to teach us and help us grow.  But in reflecting on this story over the last couple of weeks, it occurred to me that there is another lesson here, hiding under the surface.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to challenge anyone’s love of butter, ordered or otherwise.

What struck me was the language my friend was able to use to describe this new self-knowledge she had attained.  She had found herself to have “disordered loves.”

Which, if any given person takes a couple of minutes to puzzle out, she could probably find that the phrase means “loves in the wrong order.”  Yet it’s not the sort of phrase any given person on the street might use, nor is it an accident that my friend would use such a phrase.

She has had a Catholic, classical education, including a good bit of philosophy and theology, which does not count the reading and study she has done on her own in these areas.

Thus, my own little insight: our vocabulary affects our spiritual life; or, more broadly, without some degree of knowledge and study of spiritual things, it will be more difficult for us to attain to the growth we desire. 

Of course, it is totally possible for someone who has done little or no study of the spiritual to realize, “Huh, I guess I love butter more than God.  Oops.”  But it seems to me that without having at some point thought about the fact that we love some things more than others, and that God is one of the options of things to love, and that He ought to be the first of our loves, as well as what love looks like – ahem, sacrifice – that is, without this prior foundation, it would be much more difficult to come to the realization in the first place.

So what are we to do?  I don’t think the lack of a degree in philosophy or theology or scripture means we aren’t capable of this sort of spiritual insight.  However, I do think that we shouldn’t hope for self-knowledge and growth if we aren’t putting in a little bit of work.

Some of this is easy – pay attention to the scripture readings at Mass.  Read the Bible often.  (A study Bible with a good commentary can be even more helpful.)  Pick up a book on spiritual things once in a while.  Go to lectures, if you are so lucky as to have the opportunity, on theological topics, or take the theology-for-lay-people classes that some diocese offer, usually in the evenings to accommodate working peoples’ schedules.  Pray – and ask God to show you where you need to grow.

That is all fine and good, but here’s my real concern: are we giving our kids the vocabulary to talk about and ponder spiritual things, as well as we are able?  We have the advantage, in our home, of a Theology MA to answer (and pose!) these questions.  But even when Craig isn’t home, I have to be ready with the words that will help my children understand their faith.  My words form their conception of God, the Church, and what it means to be a person of faith.

Shoot.

No pressure, right? 

It is daunting, day in and day out, to not just break up the sibling bickering and direct our children towards virtue, but to do it in such a way that they grow up with the language that creates a framework – a scaffold, perhaps – on which to build their understanding of their faith.

I feel like I should digress and point out that faith is possible without understanding; that a relationship with God is what counts; that many holy people don’t use fancy theological language to describe their love of God…and all this is true.  And yet, we have been created with intellect, and spirit, and body, for that matter, and God wants us to use all of them to seek Him out.  (Of course, there should be one or more attributions here for this idea – Aquinas, I think – but that part I usually leave to the resident MA.)

All of which goes to show that I myself have a long way to go towards doing this well.  Listening more closely to those conversations between our theologian friends will probably be one of my starting points.  

And at the end of all my own philosophizing, (or is it theologizing?) I have to thank my friend for her love of butter, and her desire to love God better, and her humility, which allowed her to share this story with me, and me to share it with you.  Because it was her funny, self-deprecating story which started my reflection (should there be a tangent on time for reflecting, even on the mundane?  Not today!), and it is her story, and, of course, her friendship, which I hope will spur our family along on the path to greater holiness.

It’s a Good Day When…

…the old lady at the bookstore stops you to say, “My, what a big baby that is!”

Yeah, this is the same baby who was so small that we couldn’t take him out of the incubator to hold him for the first week and half he was alive; the same one who was eating 10 mL at a time, and that through a feeding tube; the same one who, when he was curled up, was about as long as Craig’s hand.

That baby astonished this dear woman with his sheer girth.

God is good.  If I forget for a minute to be grateful, he reminds me.

Yep, it was a good day.


May I recommend:

To my daughter, who taught me not to worry about time

a beautiful reflection on motherhood via The Washington Post.

Have a beauty-full day!  (I know it’s cheesy.  I couldn’t help myself.)

 

Denver’s “Angel of Charity” and her Little Red Wagon

There was a great article in the Washington Post on Monday about Servant of God Julia Greeley, who died 100 years ago this week.

Julia was born into slavery in Missouri, and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  She later moved to Denver, where she worked as a housekeeper.  There she became Catholic and began the ministries which would continue for the rest of her life.

Julia gave to the poor, and when she didn’t have what someone needed, she begged until she got it for them.  She would make her rounds after dark, so that her charity would not become a spectacle, or an embarrassment to the people she helped.  She would load her little red wagon with firewood, clothing, food, and whatever else she thought might be needed, and walk the streets of Denver doing good.

Julia was an evangelist, too.  In particular, she had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart, and distributed pamphlets about it to fire stations.  She thought that as dangerous as it was to be a fireman, it was important for them to hear the Good News before it was too late.

Julia never did anything spectacular.  She just loved and gave of herself every day of her life, in charity and humility.  What a beautiful example, to remind us that no gift is too small, and no person too [seemingly] insignificant to do God’s work!

On Thursday, June 7, Julia Greeley will become the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral since it was constructed in 1912.

You can read more about Servant of God Julia Greeley and her cause for canonization on the website of the Julia Greeley Guild.

Close to Home

I guess that title could also refer to our renewed search for a permanent dwelling place (prayers for that, please!)…

but this poem hit close to home, considering what we’ve been through during the last six months.  So I thought I’d share it.  Thanks to poets.org and their poem-a-day project for bringing it to my attention.

The Things That Count

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when

          you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along

          alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a

          groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or

          song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go

          wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when

          the way seems long—

Dear, these are the things that count.

A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!

Experiencing the Mass, Old and New

We were in Houston this weekend for the memorial honoring Craig’s Uncle Wade (which was lovely), and lo and behold, there was a Syro-Malabar rite Catholic Church about three miles from our hotel.  We had visited the Hindu temple and gone out for Indian food the day before, so we decided to make it a trifecta: the First Official Baker Family Cultural Awareness Weekend…or something like that.

Background:  the Syro-Malabar church traces its founding to the missions of St. Thomas the Apostle.  The story is that St. Thomas evangelized India, and that these communities have been Christian as long as anyone, anywhere.  Their church has a complicated history, but now is in full communion with Rome.

So we were prepared for a different sort of liturgy during the Mass (which they call a Qurbana, from the Aramaic word for sacrifice), and for being the only white people in the room, and for heavy accents that made understanding the homily difficult (Clare was convinced the priest was speaking another language until we told her afterward that no, it was just rapid, heavily accented English.)  We were prepared (and excited) to see the gloriously beautiful saris.  We were not disappointed in any of these things.

We were surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a youth Mass.

Surprised, but not disappointed.

I admit Craig and I exchanged glances when the liturgy began with “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons.  And from where we were sitting, near the back on the left side, it looked like the whole building was filled almost exclusively with teenagers.  What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?

This is what we eventually figured out: there is a 9AM Mass, which is in Malayalam and (most of) the adults attend.  (Malayalam is the vernacular – the Mass was said in Syriac until the 1960s  when it was translated.  The English translation we experienced is from the 1990s, and was made for the diaspora church which less often spoke Malayalam in daily life.)  This service ends around 10:30, and at 10:45 another Mass begins for the young people.  When we arrived at 10:30, there were no parking spaces available.  At 10:40, when we made it inside, there were hardly any seats left.  All but the last few rows were filled with children and teenagers, seated by age, and essentially without adult chaperones.

Before the Mass (or possibly after, it wasn’t clear to me), was the Catechism class, which all these hundreds of children attended.  Our parish in Baton Rouge was at least the size of this one, and Lucy’s CCD classes averaged 15 students.  (Many others went to Catholic schools and got their religion classes there, but still.)  What was abundantly clear was that this community is focused on a goal: to pass on the faith to the next generation.

It’s not a perfect community, I’m sure.  Craig tried to ask the teenagers seated in front of us how to follow the service in the missal, and they said they didn’t know how either.  (Thankfully the young woman next to him took pity on us and helped us out!)  There were some of the same slouchy postures and wandering stares that I see often enough in “white church.”  And the priest did stop at the end of Mass to warn the First Communion class that if they didn’t think the Mass was important enough for them to be still and attentive during it, then maybe they should wait until they felt the proper reverence before approaching the sacrament.  He suggested he would be happy to give them their First Communion whenever they were ready, but that they would be better off to wait until that time.

As he pointed out, yes, Jesus is your friend, but He is also God.  And He ought to be treated with the respect due to God.  Which the liturgy itself, I have to say, makes abundantly clear.  Over and over the congregation is encouraged to “Listen attentively,” and there is an emphasis on the greatness, power, and mercy of God which shines through simple, straightforward language.

So there is all of that.  But what it really brought home to me was, as I said, the focus this community puts on its youth.  There have their traditions, ancient and beautiful traditions, but they are not so strict about them that they can’t accommodate the tastes of the youth and make them feel welcome.  The youth Mass is celebrated in English.  (Which is why we were at it instead of at the earlier one!)  They organize a massive CCD effort.  And, even though a good part of the Mass is chanted, the incense is there, the priest faces East with the people…the readers were youth.  The ushers were youth.  The praise and worship band was made entirely of youth.  Here was a place that both encouraged the parish’s young people to participate, and held their participation to a high standard.

The combination of old and new, Indian and American, was totally unexpected for us, which just goes to show how narrow our experience and imagination are.  On the other hand, it was a blessing that we (and our kids) were able to participate in the music confidently, even without hymnals or song sheets.

The whole experience reminded us how wide and welcoming the Church can be, if we let go of our preconceptions and personal preferences long enough to let her.