Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday's Passion

It’s been a rough week at the Benjamin household. Each kid has a unique challenge this week: stomach flu, failed potty training and teething. In the midst of this, I accidentally forced myself to attend traffic court this morning. (Who can remember to timely pay their dead tag tickets in the midst of all of this family chaos?) The three hour round trip into the city was just what I needed to reflect on how truly blessed I am.

While I was appreciating the lovely solitude of my journey, I ran into an extremely harried female lawyer on the steps of the courthouse. She was anxiously waiting for her client to appear. I’ve shared that look so many times in the past, I recognized her feelings immediately. I just said a prayer of Thanksgiving because I’m so thankful that I’m not “working” anymore. My work is helping this little family hang together in the rough times. When my kids get sick, it just means more sleeplessness and more piles of laundry for me. I don’t have to scramble for sick kid care or problem-solve on the cell-phone from a business meeting.

This stay-at-home life is a rare gift in modern life. Having a Catholic faith and strong marriage is an even greater blessing.

Here to celebrate the beloved gift of marriage is a portrait of Marc Chagall’s beloved wife, Isabella. I love how this sinewy mother floats gracefully over the laundry and a laughing husband and child. I’ll have to strive for more graceful “floating” this weekend.

Bella with a White Collar, 1917

Since it is a Lenten Friday today, check out Chagall's haunting crucifixion scene.

White Crucifixion

This painting emphasizes Jesus' Jewish faith. He has a prayer shawl wrapped around him. Surrounding him are scenes from Stalin's progams against the Soviet Jews. You can see the crowd bearing Red Soviet flags in upper left hand corner, along with burnt houses and a rabbi consoling his crying congregation. A robber in green makes off with stolen treasure. In the lower right hand corner, a precious torah is being burned. (Chagall was a Russian Jew and endured many trials before finally coming to the US.)

Prayer: Father, may we never take the sacrifice of your Son for granted. May we believe in his power to ransom us from sin. May we share his peace always with our Jewish elder brothers in the faith.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

St. John of the Cross


Francisco Antonio Gijón, St John of The Cross, 17th Century

"Painted in lifelike tones and gilded with extensive decoration, the statue corresponds closely to a work described in a document found in the Seville archives of a now-disbanded Carmelite convent, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. According to the document, the Spanish convent commissioned the sculptor Francisco Antonio Gijón (1653-c. 1720) to make a life-size painted-wood statue of Saint John of the Cross on the occasion of his beatification in 1675. Though little-known today, Gijón was one of the leading sculptors of the Spanish Baroque working in Seville.

The statue, which is five feet five inches tall, is a superb example of the technique of estofado decoration, where one layer of paint is scratched to reveal another of contrasting color. The robes of Saint John of the Cross feature colored paint laid over gold leaf, then scratched away to show the gilding underneath, creating rich patterns. The saint stands with outstretched hands, holding in his left an open book from which a small mountain rises. The mountain is both a symbol of the Carmelite order, which traces its origins to twelfth-century Christians who lived in caves on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, and a reference to Saint John's poem, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, the book the saint holds. The right hand of the statue once held a feather-quill pen, now missing; also missing is a cross on top of the mountain.

Saint John of the Cross

Called by Thomas Merton "one of the greatest and most hidden of the saints," Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) was a cofounder, with Saint Teresa of Avila, of the "discalced," or shoeless, a branch of the order of The Carmelites of the Roman Catholic Church. In this reform movement, which advocated a more severe form of monasticism, the monks wore the sandals of the poor rather than the shoes of the upper classes; some of the more radical friars went barefoot to indicate their commitment to poverty.

Because of his ardor in pursuing these reforms, John was imprisoned in Toledo in 1576. In his prison cell he began his famous Spiritual Canticle and Songs of the Soul. After an escape in 1578 considered by many to be miraculous, he went to Andalusia, where he wrote the remarkable mystical poems, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and The Dark Night of the Soul. John of the Cross was beatified in 1675 and canonized in 1726. He is today considered one of Spain's finest lyric poets." (NGA Website).

St. John of the Cross, pray for us. Kindle our hearts anew with the flame of devotion to Christ.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chalice


National Gallary, Washington, D.C.

"This chalice, a vessel to hold wine for Mass, is one of the most splendid treasures from the Middle Ages. Acquired by Abbot Suger for the French royal abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris, the stone cup was set in gold and probably used in the consecration ceremony for the new altar chapels of the church on 11 June 1144.

Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151, was not only a Benedictine monk but also a brilliant administrator who served as regent of France during the Second Crusade. With objects such as this chalice and the abbey's new Gothic architecture, he aimed to create a vision of paradise on earth that would awe beholders. In his writings, Suger equated Divine Light with the real light shimmering through stained glass and glistening from gems.

The cup incorporated in Abbot Suger's chalice was carved from sardonyx, probably in Alexandria, Egypt during the second to first centuries B.C. Suger's goldsmiths mounted the cup in a gold and silver setting with delicate gold-wire filigree and adorned it with gems. On the foot, a medallion depicts the haloed Christ, flanked by the Greek letters signifying: "I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End." (NGA website)

Father: Circumcise our hearts anew this Lent. On Easter Sunday, may we all drink your son's Blood with humble, grateful hearts.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How will I know this is so? How can this be?


Michelangelo, Zechariah, Sistine Chapel
Luke 1. 18-20
"Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years. The angel replied, I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day that these things occur."


Giovanni di Paolo
The Annunciation and Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1435
National Gallery, Washington D.C.
Luke 1.
"Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."

During confession today, my spiritual advisor gave me two beautiful images to contemplate; Our Blessed Mother and Zechariah. Six years into the Catholic faith and I still grapple with the issue of Transubstantiation. I had confessed this as having “doubts.” My confessor gently pointed out that we need to separate “doubt”, which is sinful behavior, from honest “questioning” which is encouraged as a necessary part of our spiritual growth.

Our approach should always be “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief”. We know the Lord is present in the Eucharist, yet we can struggle with the part of ourselves that says “how can this be.”

To illustrate the difference between doubt and sincere questions, the Holy Scripture gives us Zechariah and Our Blessed Mother. The angel Gabriel comes to both devout people the blessed news of a future pregnancy. Zechariah’s response is “How will I know this to be so?” Zechariah sees the angel Gabriel in all his glory, yet he doubts the truth of this message. Zechariah’s response is to argue against the feasibility of new life since “the facts” of biology seem to make it impossible. Gabriel answers “nothing is impossible for God” and strikes Zechariah mute.

Meanwhile, Mary is also “much perplexed” by Gabriel’s announcement that she is to bear the Messiah. She doesn’t doubt that Gabriel’s announcement is true. Yet she still struggles to comprehend it. Her questions “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Because her question is drenched in humility, Gabriel answers it. She receives an explanation of the workings of the Holy Spirit and confirmation of her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy.

The teachings of our faith, which they see so easy to explain to my four year old, can be challenging for adults. The answers will come based on our own receptivity. Will we ask our questions with the humility of Our Blessed Mother, or the arrogance of Zechariah?

Prayer: Blessed Mother, instruct all of your dear children in the truth of the faith. Pray that their ears are open and receptive to the truth.

Monday, February 25, 2008

In Praise of St. Peter's Chair


Berini's gilt bronz casting of the relic of Chair of St. Peter, 1647-53, Rome
Genesis 22.1-19

“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Abraham said, “God himself with provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place, The Lord will provide,” as its said to this day, “on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make you offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gates of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went to together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.”

Two years ago, I freaked out the leader of my Mother’s Rosary Group with a series of intense questions about this readings. I had grown up hearing this Bible story in Sunday School, of course. Yet one Easter Vigil, the intensity of this reading hit my soul.

We, the descendants of Abraham, received our blessings because our ancestor was a man ready to kill his son at the command of God.

How did Abraham know for certain that Isaac's sacrifice was demanded by God? What did he think about during his three-day trek to the mountain with Isaac? Did he tell Sarah what he was going to do to Isaac? Did she get to say goodbye to her son? If he kept it a secret from her, what did that say about their marriage?

After the Angel stopped Abraham, what happened next? Even if Abraham was stopped at the last moment, Isaac now knows that his father is willing to kill him? How could Isaac forgive his father? Would that event mar the father/son relationship forever? How could Sarah forgive Abraham when he got back home and told her what happened?

It felt downright creepy to celebrate an act of inter-family violence that was commanded by God, and then stayed by God at the last moment.

I don’t have answers to those questions. Somehow, they don’t bother me as much. The reading now makes sense on an emotional level, if not clearly on an intellectual level: that God would send his blessings down on the one human family that clearly demonstrated the trait of “obedience.”

Today’s Washington Post contains a scathing attack on the authority of the U.S. Counsel of Bishops. I realize that obedience is something we Catholic still struggle to uphold. If we think of our Bishop, and ultimately our Holy Father, as just two more authority figures in our lives, it is easy to feel rebellious. It’s much, much more difficult to view the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as clearly linked to the authority of the Holy Spirit. I hope Bernini's St. Peter’s Chair makes that linkage a little more obvious for us.

Prayer: Father Abraham, pray for us. Help us to trust the voice of the shepard and safely remain within the folds of the church.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Falling Slowly - A Scene From Once

THE most beautiful song from tonight's Oscars ceremony! (Well, aside from the brilliant Edif Pilaf.) Here is the song in it's movie context. If you haven't checked out "Once", its an amazing trip through the life of musicians. Not the famous head liners in rock concerts. But the ordinary stars of our everyday world, the ones who compose tunes after their day jobs fixing vacuum cleaners. There is even a "chastity" ending which went straight to my heart.

Prayer: Father, bless our artists. Help us compose songs, write scripts, and make movies which reflect your truth and glory.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mary Magdalene


Penance of Mary Magdalene, El Greco,1450

I joined the Catholic Church, and hence got introduced to the power of the Communion of the Saints, at the same time as the book "Da Vinci" Code was initially published. I stayed away from thinking much about Mary Magdalene. She seemed a little dangerous and highly charged. I didn't think for a second that she founded a secret family in France. Yet who was she really? A reformed prostitute or just a very sick rich woman "who had seven demons." It just seemed safer to stay away and hang out with more socially approved saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi.

This Lent, I realized that I've been selling myself short but skipping out on devotion to the woman who first witnessed Christ's resurrection. I've prayed to her a lot for help with the instant conversion of sin that she experienced and for her faith in the resurrection.

This painting by the great El Greco shows her in this light, a sincere contrite heart who is about to experience the great blessing of faith.

Prayer: Mary Magdalene, pray for us. May we share in your penance this Lent. May we experience the fullness of your joy and faith this Easter Morning!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mum -

They Make Frogs Smoke

While we are on the abstract art kick, I'm taking a chance and adding an interesting "art" video. This song is about little boys. Boys have the potential to use all that wonderful innate physicality to become aggressive unless they are filled with "good things."

Here are the song lyrics which perfectly describe my nature walks with Alex some days.
"Oh, don't pull its legs. (They're pulled).
Don't squeeze it too hard,
Don't mash it up!

If you snap it like a twig,
Glue it back with little sticks,
Put it back into the grass again."

(I hope to guide Alex into a more respectful, more gentle observer of nature before he grows into the cub scout age!)

The video starts with butterflies, trees and a beautiful lake scene. The "cub scout" boys are obvious to the innate peace of this nature experience. The boys are filled with bitterness and angry thoughts. In their self-portraits, red spots literally drip from their eyes and their mouth. (I love how the individual drawings are crumpled up after each take). The video gets a little gory in the middle as the boys start drawing pictures of hurting their pets & their desire to start forest fires. (I'm so sorry You Tube choose the kitten scene as the still shot for this video!) In the end, your strong stomach is rewarded with a clear message of redemption. The perspective of the troubled cub scouts change after they share a postive experience of singing together in a choir. The drawing of the hurt kitten is stiched back together. The kids are now shown laughing and hugging each other.

The take-home message is clear. When we take the time to fill up little boys with "good things," sweet words (the flowers & leaves) can come out of their mouths and hearts. The closing shot shows a Mom & Dad happily dancing. I think you'll agree with the Mum band, the best way to set boys on an emotional healthy course is to keep our own marriages strong and vibrant.

Prayer: Saint Francis, pray for us. Help our little boys grow up to be gentle, kind men with strong gratitude for the gifts of God's creation.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sing a New Song Unto The Lord


Last night, I had the pleasure of attending my first recording session. My choir director, Mario Adkin, composed a new choral piece called "The Only God." His piece is inspired by the upcoming papal visit of our Holy Father. My choir was invited to sing back-up vocals for the first production cut of this new work.

Before this song feast, I'd been focused solely on preparing for the Papal visit in my heart. I've taken Lent extra seriously this year. (Along with the rest of D.C., I'm still dreaming of obtaining papal mass tickets.) While singing a new song created solely to bring graces for a papal visit, I thought about preparing externally for the Papal visit.

Maybe I can invent a new cake recipe. Maybe I'll write a letter to the editor. Maybe I'll create a St. Peter's Chair wreath for the front door. I want to create a new thing. I want to show the world that I'm preparing to welcome our Pope in April. Our creativity comes from Holy Spirit. Giving it back to God by honoring the head of his church is a gift as sweet as the homemade valenties I received from my four-year old this Saint Valentine's Day.

Prayer: Lord, Help us receive our Holy Father this April with joy and thanksgiving. Open our hearts to hear his message.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Modern Beauty- For Stina


United States Air Force Memorial, Washington D.C.

View from inside United States Air Force Memorial
Photo Credit: Constructor

Jimmy Akin, has a recent post entitled "But Is It Art?" which gives modern, abstract art only begrudging respect next to more classic "masterpieces" such as paintings by Caravaggio. As an attempt to win more converts to abstraction, I’m treating you to a gentle art history lesson. As a special thank you for her support, I chose a Washington D. C sculpture that should become close to Stina’s heart.

Designed by James Ingo Freed (architect), the Air Force Memorial Sculpture is comprised of three stainless steel spires that curve upwards on a bluff above the Pentagon. The sculpture is “abstract.” Rather than recreate a realistic copy of an airplane, the memorial seeks to give a general feeling of “flight” or the “flying spirit of the Air Force.” The shape of the spires is modeled on the smoke flares from the tails of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Demonstration Planes as it performs its famous bomb burst maneuver.

The sculpture is “different.” It takes some “getting used to.” But here's why I’m glad the architect didn’t choose to commission a giant bomber plane in the realistic style of Caravaggio.

A mere sculpture of a plane, while technically impressive, could never fully communicate the wonder of flight. Airplanes are not wonderful because they have a lot of flaps and tail wings. Airplanes become poetry in motion only when they fly. Man’s ability to soar with the birds is one of the wonders of the last century. Yet how can the artist take a still statue and convey “movement?” The Navy has the sea & the Army the land. Yet how can you show the “air” for the Air Force?

The answer that Freed devised was to take one striking image, the smoke plume from the Thunderbirds, blow it up to an enormous size, and place it in a strategic location. Gazing at Freed’s design gives the viewer the same “ah” factor that would come if we were spectators of actual Air Force Pilots. We admire the precision and the agility of the pilot’s flight. The three spires also represent teamwork, unity, and brotherhood. The placement of the sculpture over the Pentagon is vitally important. This is the one building in Washington D.C. wounded by the 9/11 attackers. Gazing at the Air Force Memorial, I’m reminded of why I’m personally so grateful to Stina’s husband and his comrades. The Air Force grants us “protection.”

Modern Art sometimes demands that we viewers take a little more “context” to our viewings. Knowing more about the intent of the artist will enhance your enjoyment. Or maybe all that is necessary is that we give up the idea of what art “is supposed to look like” and impart a little more child-like innocence into our artistic gaze.

The Air Force Memorial is currently my three-year old son’s favorite landmark in D.C. We pass it regularly on Route 365 on our way to weekly Rosary Group and visits to Great-Grandfather. Next time we see this sculpture, in addition to admiring it’s beauty, we’ll be adding our prayer for Stina’s husband all of the brave members of our armed services.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the brave men and women who protect our country. May their guardian angels protect them from harm.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Faith & Prayer


The Vaphio Cups (15th century bc) were found in a tomb at Vaphio, near Sparta. Their origins, which are not certain, are either Minoan or Mycenaean. They are made of two sheets of gold fastened together. One sheet is left smooth for the inside; the other is done in repoussé relief for the outside. The scenes on the cups depict a ritual involving bull catching.
Photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

Italy,Tuscany , Chianti Region , Greek pitcher seen at Castello di Montebenichi , a 14th Century Castle Fortress
Photo credit: Nowitz Photography

Crypt of the Franciscan church at Kefr Kana (the Site of the Wedding of Cana Miracle), with ritually pure stone jar.
Photo credit: Welcometohosanna.com

"Trust in Jesus is the essence of the message of mercy. When we go to a public fountain, we can draw water from it as long as we have a vessel or container of some kind to put the water in. If our vessel is small, we can only bring back a little water; if it's large, we can bring back a lot. And anyone with a vessel can draw water from the foutain. The water is there for us, and no one is excluded. All we need is a vessel." (Divine Mercy Message, pg. 30).

Pictured above are three sizes of vessels: a cup, a pitcher and 25-30 gallon jar. Lent is the time where we focus on enlarging our vessel of faith, so that we can contain more of the abudant graces of God.

Prayer: Merciful Savior, we know that even our faith in you is a gift. Enlarge our hearts, strengthen our trust in you. We long to enlarge our small vessels to hold more of your mericiful love.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Slavery & President's Day



Gilbert Stewart (1755-1828), "Athenaeum Portrait",
Oil on canvas, 1796
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon, Virginia
(President George Washington's Estate)
"The cabin is located at the George Washington Pioneer Farmer site, which includes a barn, stables, and corn houses modeled after the ones that existed at Washington’s Dogue Run Farm. Given the connection with Dogue Run Farm, we have elected to interpret the cabin as if it were occupied by one of the families that lived at that farm. Priscilla, also known as “Silla,” lived and worked at Dogue Run, while her husband, “Slamin” Joe, worked as a ditcher at the Mansion House Farm; they had at least six children in 1799, aged from one to 14 years. Joe would have walked the roughly three miles to spend time with his family during his off hours, from Saturday night to Monday morning.""Slave Cabin,"(Mount Vernon Visitor Website)
***********

As a little girl, I visited my maternal grandparents in Alexandria, Virginia (a suburb of Washington D.C.) every President’s Day. Each trip included an annual pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. (On February 18, Mount Vernon waves it’s visitor fee in honor of our Nation’s First President. )

I have many memories of treading up the sandy paths holding my Grandpa George’s hand, listening to my Father rattle on about interesting stories from Colonial America. I scribbled with slate pencils in the little schoolhouse. I gazed at the Bastille prison key, a gift from Marquis de Lafayette. I learned that a young George didn’t really chop down a cherry tree (that “fact” is mere political campaign propaganda). My American History degree started as a small spark at age six, rocking on the great porch over looking the soothing Potomac River, imaging “what would I have felt if I lived back then?”

When we moved back to Washington D.C. in 2006, one of my first bold acts was to reestablish the tradition of visiting Mount Vernon on President’s Day. I had a husband now, a 2 1/2 year old and a 1 year old. The house tour proved a dangerous temptation for a squirmy boy. The barnyard was the central focus of our visit now. We petted sheep and admired handsome carriages. Jon and I marveled over innovative farming methods while the kids were happy to race around childproof fields.

This year, we won’t be making our regular trip. I had every intention of going this year. There is a new museum open at Mount Vernon. The smallest town parade starts at 1:30 PM. A fife and drum corps will play and there will be free cherry cake for all guests. The party is still the same, only I’ve changed this year.

During an intense reading of "Slaves in the Family,", I ran across a passage that chilled my former reverence to our founding father. Unfortunately, I didn’t save the author's glorious prose. His basic thought was beneath all of the celebrated Southern Belle Culture lies a “work camp” of slavery that rivaled the brutality and harshness of Auschwitz.

Once I read that sentence, I became unnerved by the connection. How can I take my kids to cheerfully celebrate a Southern plantation that relied on slave labor? Every glorious carriage, every whitewashed hen house, every pretty garden path, bears the handprint of a fellow human being who was made to suffer.

Am I being neurotic?

I’m not a sissy in regards to uncomfortable historical facts. I shelter my kids from violent cartoons on Saturday morning. Yet, I take them the Children’s Exhibit in the Holocaust museum. We are Catholics with a Jewish family name. It is doubly incumbent upon us to not shrink from evil.

My discomfort with Mount Vernon is that its exhibits don't clearly confront the “evil” of racism in the same way that the Holocaust museum clearly confronts the evil of the Nazi’s religious bigotry.

It’s horrid to reflect that one of our beloved National heroes happened to become rich by enslaving other people. How do you square that fact? The danger is that you slide into “moral relativism.” President Washington becomes just another “product of his time.” He was helpless to change the course of an entire slave-owning society.

Here is what I found on the official Mount Vernon website: “George Washington was born into a world in which slavery was accepted. He became a slave owner when his father died in 1743. At the age of eleven, he inherited ten slaves and 500 acres of land. When he began farming Mount Vernon eleven years later, at the age of 22, he had a work force of about 36 slaves. With his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, 20 of her slaves came to Mount Vernon. After their marriage, Washington purchased even more slaves. The slave population also increased because the slaves were marrying and raising their own families. By 1799, when George Washington died, there were 316 slaves living on the estate.”"Slavery & Washington,"(Mount Vernon Visitor Website).

There are a few difficulties with this paragraph. First, it is clear that George Washington was not a passive recipient of a slave-owning family. A young George inherits ten slaves. At his death, he owns 316 human beings. Second, Washington's active participating in buying more and more human souls remains unquestioned by historians. Instead, this act is just brushed over and excused. Poor George was just a man born into flawed times.

God’s truth, and hence human morality, is never tied to mere social conventions. God’s truth is timeless. Thousands of years before George Washington's birth, Moses had led his people out of slavery. Ancient Rome, with its slave system, had already fallen. In the 1790s, England outlawed the slave trade. (Check out the recent movie, “Amazing Grace” for more information on this topic). Each one of us is born into a flawed society stepped in human sin. Yet we are all called upon to more fully embrace’s the true values of Christ and show them to the world.

The second paragraph of the website article appears to applaud President Washington’s progress in this regard. “Although George Washington was born into a world where slavery was accepted, his attitude toward slavery changed as he grew older. During the Revolution, as he and fellow patriots strove for liberty, Washington became increasingly conscious of the contradiction between this struggle and the system of slavery. By the time of his presidency, he seems to have believed that slavery was wrong and against the principles of the new nation. As President, Washington did not lead a public fight against slavery, however, because he believed it would tear the new nation apart. Abolition had many opponents, especially in the South. Washington seems to have feared that if he took such a public stand, the southern states would withdraw from the Union (something they would do seventy years later, leading to the Civil War). He had worked too hard to build the country to risk tearing it apart.” (Mount Vernon, George Washington & Slavery).

Thus, the official position is that President Washington’s hands were tied. He couldn’t do anything politically on the issue of abolition, so he did what he could privately. Yet, what did President Washington really do? How did his personal treatment of his own slaves reflect his new belief that "All Men are Created Equal Under God?"

Here is a diary excerpt from a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon in 1798, one year before Washington’s death and many years after his supposed conversion of the heart:

“We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot. A boy of 15 was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions. The G[enera]l had sent to Alexandria to fetch a doctor. A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities. They allot them each …one gallon maize per week; this makes one quart a day, and half as much for the children, with 20 herrings each per month. At harvest time those who work in the fields have salt meat; in addition, a jacket and a pair of homespun breeches per year.” (Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon Website.)

The living conditions of George Washington's field slaves were beyond terrible. It shocks the Polish visitor as being "more miserable" then the poorest Polish peasant. One of the richest farms in America can not "afford" to give more than the barest essentials of food, clothing, and shelter to its 316 workers. Washington might soothe his conscience with the expensive gifts of a teapot and doctor from Alexandria. These few gifts do little to lift his workers out of their miserable poverty. In further contrast to the European peasants, the Mount Vernon slaves do not even "own" themselves or their children.

The facts reveal a fundamental contraction on President Washington’s life. He led an army to fight for liberty from the British Crown. Yet he was unable to give liberty to slaves on his own farm. What the men of the American Revolution wanted for themselves, they were unwilling to grant to others, particularly men of a different skin color. As we Catholics would say, “the measure they sought to obtain from God did not match the measure they granted to others.”

I cannot sit in judgment of President Washington, nor should you. Life is hard. We live in a fallen world where the struggle to love Christ and remain faithful to the Gospel appears to be impossible.

We Americans have a truly “unfinished portrait of George Washington.” We want the clean, easy answers that lead us to “hero worship” and not towards the messy, historical answers of the man behind the myth. It’s a shame, because an accurate reflection on the beliefs and actions of President Washington will teach us much about ourselves.

I’m sure I’ll get this squared away someday. Maybe next year, we'll head back to Mount Vernon. My family can pray first at the slave cemetery and then eat cherry cake on the grand lawn. Just not this year. Not during Lent. I’m wandering around with ashes on my forehead, still trying to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of American History that were left deliberately unpainted in my youth.

Prayer: Father, protect America. Continue to remake us into the home of the free and the brave.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fountain of Mercy


Fountain at Patio de los Leones, Moors, 8th Century
Granada, Spain
photo credit: Alexander Home Page

"In a note in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, pastors are urged to "compare the Eucharist to a fountain and the other sacraments to rivulets. For the Holy Eucharist is truly and necessarily to be called the fountain of all graces, containing, as it does, after an admirable manner, the fountain itself of celestial gifts and graces, and the Author of all the Sacraments, Christ Our Lord, from whom, as from its source, is derived whatever of goodness and perfection the other sacraments possess." (Divine Mercy Message Booklet, pg 37).

In Arab design, the highlight of a garden is always its fountain. For a desert culture, water was a source of wealth and pleasure. This ancient fountain consists of a center pool surrounding by twelve lions. Water enters the center well and exits through an ring in each lion's mouth.

To apply the image suggested by the Council of Trent, image a similar fountain with six lions instead of twelve. Instead of the Eucharist existing as merely one of seven sacraments, it should be considered the "highest" sacrament or the center well-spring of grace. Each of the other sacraments, baptism, holy orders, marriage, etc, are like the lion which help center and pour out the Eucharist into our lives.

Prayer: Merciful Savior transform our lives to more closely match our holy vocation in life and help us smoothly pour our the grace of our love and mercy into the world. Saint Faustina pray for us.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why Make Art?


Emily: “Good-by, world, Good-by, Grover's Corners,
. . . Mama and Papa . . .
Good-by to clocks ticking . . .
and Mama's sunflowers.
And food and coffee.
And new ironed dresses and hot baths . . .
and sleeping and waking up.
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?"

Stage Manager:"No, The saints and poets, maybe-they do some."

From Act III, "Our Town", by Thornton Wilder, American play write (p. 108)

This self-enforced Lenten Art+ Prayer series has encouraged a re-examination of what secular art means to me. As a non-Catholic, art existed outside of myself, a thrilling way for a novice girl to grasp “truth.” I gobbled down books, and plays, and movies, and pretty pictures as a means to discover myself. I felt myself becoming wiser with each new discovery. Finding a new favorite author or painter meant finding a new friend and becoming initiated into a world of ideas, witty repartee, and high sophistication. I collected favorite artists the way other women collected obscure shoes. Loving art, or wearing hip shoes, was a way to flaunt my uniqueness at future cocktail parties.

Now as a novice Catholic, I’m younger in mental years than I ever remember being. My world-view is fresh and tentative. Yet, I know an inexhaustible treasure of truth lies in the mysteries of the Catholic Church and it’s sacraments. Truth is something I try to immerse myself in each time I touch God.

Art is no longer a drug to be consumed, but something tentatively to create. My admiration of other people’s creations is no longer something to be graphed as “good” or “bad” but as something subjective that either “speaks directly to my heart” or “speaks to someone’s else heart and not mine.” Art cannot be the “Truth.” Art reflects the artist’s interaction with “Truth.” This more human, more humble, approach to art has left me profoundly grateful.

There is a strong tendency in the human condition to “fall asleep.” To take each moment in it’s entirety, in its monotone sameness, as “the end of the story.” Art, good art, for me is a wake-up call to the soul. It reminds us the life is fleeting. That circumstances change.

In Caravaggio’s Conversion, we see Saul in a humble, pitiful fall. Yet looking at this moment of confusion, I’m reminded what happens next. This tremendous moment is the start of a life infused with saintly grace. The beauty of Mary Cassatt, in her tender “Breakfast at Bed” almost causes me physical pain. I know that little ones stay little for such a brief time. I’m reminded of how often I’m the mother who worries about the toddler upsetting the coffee cup rather than taking a moment to squeeze the pudgy hips of a newly formed soul.

I’m still sorting out my screening process in art. I’m no longer yearning to attend the hippest art exhibits listed in the New Yorker. (I’m learning slowly that there are some images that are down right harmful to my spiritual development.) At the same time, I’m reassured that there is a reason I’m not as cloistered as my beloved Sister Wendy, who I just learned once snapped off “It’s A Wonderful Life” in mid-broadcast after a stressed Jimmy Stewart yelled his kids because “that is such a bad example.” I personally, needed to see the redemptive grace stated in that movie.

Art and prayer are tied together for me. I can pray after a Today Show expert on the chilling tale of African violence. Or I can watch a foreign film and feel as if my heart was loaned to another for two and half hours. Once I get it back it is forever changed. (Iraq to me is the blind boy who read the word “ALLAH” in Braille on the heads of grain, or the brother and sister who shared a single pair of shoes).

Thank you for your patience, as I spent yet another Lent reforming my thoughts on things I thought I already knew.

Prayer for Civil Authority


Tony Cragg, British artist, born 1949
"Subcommittee," Hirshhorn Scuplture Garden, Washington D.C.
photo credit: bluffton, edu

I love this sculpture, which seems to symbolize D.C. so perfectly. It consists of dozens of giant file stamps, all worn from leaving a mark on thousands of pieces of paper. The stamps are each unique yet also function as a group. They have worn groves from hanging in the same spot year after year. Staring at the sculpture on a blustery winter day, I can easily imagine a tired bureaucratic stamping “approved” or “denied” millions of times over the course of a year. The sculpture stands for both the massive weight and trivial “ordinariness” of democratic institutions.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, enlighten the leaders of all civil authority. Help the rule of law on earth more closely match God’s will in heaven.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Flying with Chagall


Marc Chagall, Russian Surrealist, 1917

On February 14, 2000, Jon got his first real kiss from me and decided that he was "in like flint." Here we are eight years later, still flying as high as a Marc Chagall painting.

Prayer: Our Blessed Mother, bless the bonds of matrimony. Keep our hearts faithful and pure.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Marriage

Just when it seems that our American culture cannot become more cynical towards marriage, I consistently find a unique piece of art, or a film, or a video that points out the way. Check out Google's website today!

Prayer: Blessed Virgin Mother, pray for us to love our spouses in your holy example, today and every day. Remind us what a priviledge it is to grow old together.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mother Work


Mary Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed, American Impressionist

"It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper place the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can't) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if where as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on top, beautifully aired, are spread your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on." (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, pg 12).

Prayer: Oh Blessed Virgin Mother, please clean the interior of our mind and our hearts tonight. Let our sin and evil passions be erased through the power of your prayer and your immaculate heart. May our heads and hearts be full of much "prettier thoughts" tomorrow.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Low Art / High Praise


"Hobo" Signs, 1930s, United States of America

Daily Mass Reading, Matthew 25: 31-46
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'"

My husband and I dragged three sleepy kids to 6:30 AM Mass this morning. Instead of the gentle homily on the 150 Jubilee of Our Lady of Lourdes, Father John’s homily was a bit more fire and brimstone. “Where are you going do be on that day?” he thundered. “Will you be with the sheep or with the goats?”

In years past, I’ve considered myself a community service junkie. My career as a poverty lawyer brought me into daily contact with Christ’s own. For extra measure, I loaded up on the various volunteer tasks and social justice committees. So when I hear the “what have you done to serve for Christ lately,” I’d mentally run down my latest task list and relax in my church pew.

My life changed dramatically in past four years. First, I kicked off the “do good/ feel good” career with baby number two. Now, with baby number three, my life is stretched so thin that every act of charity pinches. To sing in the church choir, I must skimp on sleep one night each week and my husband must mind three small kids alone in a church pew each Sunday. My husband's rare Friday night Knight's meetings, mean that I still feel the burn of going 17 hours of straight "mommy duty" well into the weekend. Meanwhile, our thin budget makes coming up with cash for the Archdiocese appeal a challenge.

For the first time this morning, I didn’t have a long list of tangible acts of charity to fall back upon during Father John’s passionate homily. It felt uncomfortable. I felt exposed. I would have probably fallen even more into despair if I hadn’t recently read the encouraging words from “Story of a Soul.” (I’ve recently figured out that my maturity level in regards to all spiritual matters about matches the physical development of my 9 month-old daughters, Maria.)

As Father John relentless questions grew more heated “Have you given Jesus your cloak? Have you visited our Savior in prison? Where will you be on that terrible Judgment day?” I looked at my little daughter and said a silent “No, I have not met the needs of the poor in any recent memory. Ave Maria! You are just going to have to carrying me on that awful day, because I’m to spiritually weak and pitiful to walk on my own yet!” Asking for help from our Blessed Mother soothed me in the moment.

The question kept coming back to me all day. In my life current life as an exhausted mother, where does charity to Christ poor fit in?

I can’t go back to the dizzy, emotional life as a poverty lawyer. In this season of my life, I can’t sign up for a dozen charity committees. At the same time, caring for three little ones doesn’t exempt me from living out Christ’s teachings. Nor would I even want it to! I find that my heart is split open as a new mother. Things that I intellectually cared about before: the homelessness of Katrina victims, the poverty in the inner-city, the spiritual dryness of many of my generation who where raised without faith; now fill my heart with overflowing compassion.

I do not have an answer yet. There is no "action plan for Lenten charity" in my household. However, the faint stirrings of an idea came to me tonight.

I remembered the words of my grandmother, who died of heart failure two years ago. Grandma Rupp described how her mother, Meade Buehrer, fed a long string of “hobos” during the 1930s. My great-grandmother evidently kept a pie pan next to the stove filled with extra servings of whatever food was currently cooking for dinner. Almost every night, an unknown male stranger would appear at her back door requesting scraps of food. Great-grandmother would say a few words, and hand over a fully prepared meal. My grandmother’s job was to retrieve the pie pan from the back yard after the stranger was done with his supper.

My grandmother said, “I never went more than two nights without having to go to the back yard in the dark to retrieve a dirty pie pan left behind by a hobo. It took me a few years, but I noticed that none of the other neighbor kids had to do this. I don’t know why the hobos always choose our house or how they always knew that my mother was both kind and a good cook.”

After her death, I stumbled on a likely explanation. “Hobos” had special signs that they left behind on the fence posts of kind women, signifying “good for a handout.” I’m sure the steady stream of out-of-work men coming through Archbold, Ohio did not come to my great-grandmother’s home by chance. There must have been some sort of sign left on her backyard gate. Imagine having such a mark outside your door! (Notice that the upper left-hand “hobo” mark also looks like the Eucharist, what a coincidence!)

This Lent, I’m praying to receive my own mark of charity. Like my great-grandmothers mark, it will have to be small and humble. A small deed done with a grateful heart, folded into the middle of my many mothering tasks.

St. Martin of Tours, St. Bernadette, hear our prayer to increase in deeds of charity.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A New Use For Earrings


Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer
c. 1665-1666; Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague

"At all times women have been wont to wear pearls at their ears. Pliny assigns as a reason the pleasure that they take in their jingle one against the other. But I, when I remember how God's chosen servant Isaac sent earrings as the first pledge of his love to Rebecca, am inclined to believe rather that the mystical signification is that the first tribute of a husband, and that which a wife should watchfully preserve for him, is her ear, that no sound or language may enter therein, but the sweet music of pure and modest words, which are the pearls of great price of the Gospel; one should always remember that poison enters the soul by the ears, as it enters the body by the mouth."
St Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, pg 230.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Conversion


The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo), by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome.

Acts 9 1-6
"Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letter to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do."

"The painting depicts the moment recounted in Chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles when Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul, fell on the road to Damascus." . . .There are three figures in the painting. The commanding muscular horse dominates the canvas, yet it is oblivious to the divine light that defeated his rider's gravity. The aged groom is human, but gazes earthward, also ignorant of the moment of where God intervenes in human traffic. Only Saul, whose gravity and world has been overturned lies supine on the ground, but facing heaven, arms supplicating rescue. The groom can see his shuffling feet, and the horse can plod its hooves, measuring its steps; but both are blind to the miracle and way. They inhabit the unilluminated gloom of the upper canvas. Saul, physically blinded by the event for three days, suddenly sees the Christian message. For once, his soul can hear the voice of Jesus, asking, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" His sword and his youthful sinews are powerless against this illuminating bolt of faith." (Wikipedia)

I loved studying Caravaggio in my Art 100 class in college. "The Conversion" is one of my all time favorites. I love the power that is conveyed by the perspective in this painting. Rather than focus on the subject of the painting, a giant muscular horse fills most of the space. As viewers, we have a sense of the great height that Saint Paul has been cast down, and his humility in the face of an overwhelming vision of truth.

Saint Paul is a good saint for me to pray to during the unique trials of being a convert. Saint Peter is more like a “cradle Catholic.” He had the blessings of his father to leave the fishing business to follow Jesus. Saint Peter got to take his brother Andrew with him on his journey.

In contrast, Saint Paul had to make a dramatic turn-around alone. He left old friends and familiar religious routines behind over-night. His greeting into the new Christian church was apprehensive at best. When I struggle to explain my complete change of heart, my stricter Lenten fasts, my desire for yet another baby, it helps me to remember Saint Paul. I pray for his help, his humility, his certainty that the true “Way” is worth any sacrifice.

Saint Paul, pray for us Catholics. Help us convert our hearts and follow the Way.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Inspiration


Antonello da Messina
Madonna and Child, c. 1475
National Gallery of Art

I'm the only girl in Washington who sooths the pain of a bad newborn latch by going to gaze at paintings of our Blessed Mother at the National Gallery. Not exactly a solution proposed by the Le Leche Handbook, yet this gorgous image by da Messina healed me. I was inspired to reach deeper into the sacrificial love well and take care of my little one with renewed energy. Keep close to your Blessed Mother today.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we might become worthy of the promises of Christ.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Adoration


Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi
The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, Location, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

(detail of the procession)

This painting takes up an entire gallery wall in the National Gallery of Art. I love tracing the rolling, roaring crowd. Everyone is eager to pay homage to Jesus. In reality, there couldn't have been such an adoring crowd at the time of Jesus' birth. His divine nature was hidden under the frality of a tiny baby boy. Only a few devote souls were called to witness the birth of the "Hope of the World."

Now is the time to turn back to the path of the Lord. Now is the time to wash your baptismal garment. Now is the time to fine too your manner of devotions. Now is the time to reach out and increase your prayers, your almsgiving and your fasting. Now is the time to pay homage to our risen Lord. Saint Peter, pray for us all to join the happy crowd of your Mother Church this Lenten Season.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ash Wednesday


Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew
1602, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

"Three days after my journey to Bayeux I started on a much longer one- to Rome. It was a journey which showed me the emptiness of all temporal things. But I saw spendid monuments and gazed at all the glory of art in the service of religion."

Saint Therese of Lisieux, "The Story of a Soul" (page 67).

Today is the day of Ashes and a fore-taste of death. All that we are, all whom we touch, all that we create, will soon turn to dust and return to the earth. Just for today, let everything your make: a sketch, a letter, a blog post, or a simple fasting supper be prompted by the Holy Spirit. May all our work during the Lenten season be completed in humility, rather than the all too familiar prompting of pride and glory-seeking. Saint Matthew, pray for us.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Virtue of Obedience- Or the Post I Never Planned to Write

I used to listen to hour after hour of Christian radio programs while driving through the long, flat state of Indiana. My trip home from Madison, Wisconsin to Buckhannon, West Virginia ran ten hours. Except for the one time I listened to eight hours of Suze Ormon tapes, my mind was usually too frazzled from law school exams to remember to pack cassette tapes for the trip. The radio was a fun medley of new finds and old favorites until I left Chicago. From Southern Illinois to Ohio, there was nothing but talk Christian radio stations.

Somewhere in deep Indiana, during three years of cross-country trips from 1997-2000, is when I first heard this notion of “wives being obedient to their husbands”, and “fathers being head of their families”. I don’t mind telling you, that about five minutes into any discussion of this topic, I turn off my radio in disgust at such old-fashion drivel.

Like all virtues in my faith journey so far, my children have taught me the importance of “obedience.” I have hit the age where my eldest can now, we Southerners say, “sass her Mother.” It broke my heart the first time. By age four, I had gone from being hurt and shocked, to wondering out-loud to my husband “How can I get some positive reinforcement on this subject fast because the repeated time-outs in the naughty chair are just not cutting it!”

It was at that moment that I realized, “When did my daughter ever see me being obedient?” There were lots of things, such as table manners, that my husband and I were able to model for her. When we wanted the kids to sit still in their chairs or to chew with their mouth closed, we’d make an elaborate “thank you Daddy for sitting so still in your chair tonight” production during dinner. That system worked well for us. But how would I “teach” the virtue of obedience.

At first, my method was obvious and forced. Jon would ask me to pass the peas at dinner. I’d make a big, showy production “Look, I’m passing the peas to Daddy because I’m being OBEDIENT. I’m not saying, “I don’t want to!” or “Not now, maybe later.” I’m passing the peas, quickly and cheerfully because I liked to do what I’m asked.”

Then I started to slip “obedience” into our nightly rosary intensions. Each night since the beginning of Advent, I’ve prayed for the same things for my children. I pray for Hannah to become more obedient, Alex to finish potty training and Maria to stop her teething pain and start sleeping again. The virtue of obedience seemed to fit neatly into my own quest for increased meekness and humility. I didn’t know what I was praying for exactly, or who I wanted to become more obedient “too.” It was more a vague feeling that sort of stayed vague and undefined for a few weeks.

My first act of conscious obedience to my husband occurred over this hallway chair. As you can tell from this interior shot of my apartment’s front door, I don’t have much room. The hallway is less than three feet wide. There’s no entryway, screen porch or mudroom. Only a few feet of linoleum to handle two young kids, a baby, and a jumpy, nervous dog.

When my husband first moved a chair in the middle of the hallway, I disliked it. I thought it made the place look “cluttered.” I tripped over it. The kids kept dropping toys under it. It was hard to vacuum around it. For a few days, I moved the chair back to the living room each morning. Every night, my husband moved it back.

One day, I thought, “I guess I can leave the chair there. I’m trying to learn how to be obedient.” So that was my little silent gift to my husband. I chair, in a position I heartily disliked.

Nothing happened for a few more days. Then I noticed that it made a convenient place to sit a child down to put on his snow boots. It was a place to put the dog leash in between dog walks. I could place the baby carrier on it while sorting the mail. This chair, that totally violated my inner homemaker, was full of useful purposes.

About five days into “the chair as a gift” experiment, my husband started loudly praising me. “Thank you so much for letting me keep a chair here. It really helps me to have a comfortable place to change my shoes in the morning.” The praise, repeated night after night left me feeling a little sheepish. It was just one chair after all.

His repeated praised got me thinking. What say does my husband have at home? Sure we picked out the IKEA furniture together. Once we hung up the pictures together and found a place for the couch, I have made all future “home” decisions. For example, I handle all the grocery shopping. As a result, we eat peas for dinner most nights instead of corn. We use Colgate instead of Crest. We drink Coke instead of Pepsi. Multiply control of a dozen daily decisions over hundreds of days. Over time, my husband could easily feel that his home was as impersonal to him as hotel room.

Recognizing how powerful my role as a full time “home-maker” had become made it easier to cheerfully acquiesce to my husband few stated preferences.

Then came the kid rules. In the past, my husband has made bold pronouncements such as “no toys in Mom and Dad’s room.” I’ve usually argued against such sweeping changes with the rationalization that these rules will be impossible to enforce with a 4 & 3 year old. Since the burden of “enforcement” falls upon me, I should get to set the rules. This time, I let the “no toys in the parent’s bedroom” stand unchallenged.

The next morning, Alex and Hannah both tugged armfuls of toys into our room while I nursed the baby. “Remember Dad’s rule, no toys in here,” I said reluctantly. “But I want to,” went the familiar refrain. I sighed. This was going result in tears and multiple trips to the time out chair. “Remember what Dad said?”

Suddenly, I experienced the power that usually resides with used car salesmen who refer to fictitious managers. “Oh, okay.” The kids left the room trailing their toys wordlessly behind them. What happened? Because I wasn’t the one setting the rules, they couldn’t argue with me. Everyone in the house knew that Dad was fanatic about kicking the toys out of his room. I wasn’t the one deciding what would be and wouldn’t be permissible. I was simply the cop enforcing the rulebook.

It’s only been two months, but I can’t tell you how many arguments this has saved me. I don’t have to decide what the rules should be on the spot and under fire. Once I’ve figured out that the no toy rule can be enforced and makes life so much better, I’m more willing to take my husband’s other parenting advice. Alex should learn how to cut his own food and not rely always on Mom to do it. My soft-heart, and even more honestly, inability to stand loud crying, has stopped by from pushing my middle-child into ever increasing levels of independence.

I don’t live under Jon’s dictatorship. If one of his proposed family rules don’t work out, I’ll bring it to my husband’s attention. My level of input hasn’t change in regard to my home or my kids. Instead, my attitude have changed. When Jon makes a suggestion that I disagree with, I don’t instantly say “that isn’t going to work” and launch into Smith Debate President mode. Instead, I take a “wait and see” approach. If problems arise after trying a new project Jon’s way for five days or more, I’ll tell Jon about them in private. Together we brainstorm solutions. So far, the Mom as ‘loyal first-mate approach” has worked well.

By mid-January, I thought that was “all she wrote” on the subject. I figured out an easier way to make joint-decisions about the household and the raising of our kids. Then my husband made a thrilling announcement last week. Jon is currently working his way to a 3rd Degree in the Knights of Columbus. My husband is traditionally “not a joiner”. The skill that he used to avoid even the basic, mandatory promotions during ten years of Army Reserve Duty is legendary among his unit. So it was with complete surprise that I heard my husband say “I’m want to take this thing seriously and move up high in the ranks. The Knights need a leader who will take seriously his Catholic faith and complete the rituals with honor and respect.”

“Where did this change come from?” I asked bewildered, but pleased. “It came from you, I guess. You made room for me at the top of our household. I’m not naturally a leader, but having you defer to my decisions and respect my opinion has made me more confident, more clear-headed.”

Wow! Where this obedience trail is going, gentle readers, I have no idea. I’m just reporting the facts at this point. (I just told my headstrong daughter this morning that if she wants to become a nun, she’ll have to practice obedience to her Mother Superior. What better way to master that tricky virtue than to start now by cheerfully putting on her knee socks when asked by her actual Mother rather than whine “But it’s not snowing today!” By Jolly, did she now put on her knee socks in a flash.)

Do you have any thoughts on the obedience issue? Do you see any connection between how children mind their parents and how a wife cheerfully, and respectfully obeys her husband’s requests?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Blogs & Lent

Last year a number of the hip Catholic girls took down their blogs for Lent, or at least closed their comments. I'm actually thinking about doing the opposite. I'm hoping to compose a "40 days of Art + Prayer" thing. Anyone have ideas on how to make internet time a more focused and meaningful time with our Lord? What are your blogging rules during Lent?