Lidia Cooks, Pope Francis Eats: The Papacy And Food

You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.

“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”

As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.

There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.

However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.

Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.

Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.


Chef Lidia Bastianich

Science, Faith, and Controversy: A Look at France’s Most Important Building

If you have not been following the art and architecture comentariat of late – and after all, that’s what you read me for – then you may be unaware of a tempest brewing around the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France. Universally considered to be one of the greatest works of architecture on the planet, the Medieval architecture of Chartres and its magnificent stained glass windows have inspired writers, artists, and composers, as well as many imitators. Beginning in 2008, the French government began to restore the building, and in the process has removed much of the soot, dust, and grime accumulated over the centuries.

In doing so, experts working on the project claim that they are bringing back the building to something like its original appearance, based on the discoveries they are making as they go. “Non!” shout other experts, however, decrying the work at Chartres as a scientific and architectural disaster. Their complaint is that “new” Chartres is too clean, too white, and too speculative in appearance, and that the building is being ruined through irresponsible intervention. This fight has raged in the art press for years now, and shows no sign of abating.

Why should a single building, even a church, cause so much consternation among so many people? The answer comes from the particular importance of Chartres itself, which embodies fundamental changes in human experience which today might seem so commonplace as to be easily overlooked. For at the risk of over-simplification, which is inevitable in a brief article such as this, Chartres represents a turning point both in science, and in the Western understanding of man’s relationship to the Divine.

On a scientific level, Chartres is a major piece of technology. Today, when most of us live or work in buildings whose walls are composed either entirely of glass, or featuring significant expanses of that material, it is easy for us to forget that this was once a practical impossibility. Previously, a building’s walls were used primarily for the purpose of protection from the elements, animals, or other humans. The thicker and more impenetrable the wall, the better.

Advances in the study and understanding of engineering, physics, and chemistry, among other areas, made it possible for the builders of Chartres to alter the way that humans design and use a permanent structure. Instead of being a closed space designed to keep nature out, Chartres employs nature to achieve a greater purpose. In effect, the walls of Cathedral become a means to a double end.

At Chartres, the basic, utilitarian purpose of the structure – protection – is achieved, but at the same time this purpose is turned to a theological end – faith. The walls of the Cathedral still keep out the sun and the rain, the birds and the bugs, the Moors and the Huns, in order to provide a safe place for human beings to gather and worship. However in achieving this result through the use of copious amounts of colored glass set in comparatively thin walls, the builders of Chartres were able to achieve their purpose of persuading the visitor to fundamentally reexamine his own life. That is no small feat for a structure built 8 centuries ago, without the use of computers or modern machinery.

This purpose is highly important to keep in mind because, whatever its scientific glories, Chartres was and still is, first and foremost, a house of Christian worship. While it was not the first Gothic building in the world, let alone in France, it is without question one of the finest. As a major touchstone for the Gothic style, it represents on a theological level a significant shift in man’s attitude toward the Divine.

Recall that previously, houses of worship were often rather gloomy places, even if impressively sized on the outside and elaborately decorated on the inside. Structures like the Ancient Egyptian temples at Karnak, the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were designed to evoke the Divine as someone all-powerful, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable, but to a chosen few. Even on those rare occasions when light finds its way in to such structures, as in the Panthenon in Rome, it was usually somewhat limited in its penetration.

With the arrival of Gothic architecture, most notably at Chartres, God is still God, but man is no longer incapable of perceiving Him. This is a house of worship in which the visitor is meant to feel joy, both for being a part of God’s creation, collectively, and for being someone who God loves, individually, warts and all. Without denying Divine power, let alone judgment and ultimate punishment for sin – indeed, openly warning of it in its decoration –Chartres and the many churches which subsequently copied it encourage those who pass within its walls to live in hope, rather than despair.

No matter where you go inside a church like Chartres, light touches you. You are surrounded by and enveloped in it, as you move in and out of the structural elements which comprise the building. While the effect of being in such a space is still overwhelming, making you realize just how small you are in the scheme of things, at the same time you are also drawn to and embraced by the majestic beauty around you. Realizing that you are not forgotten by a distant God, tucked away somewhere in the dark, but rather known and cared for by Him, regardless of your station in life, is what sets Christianity apart. The same, jewel-toned light of Heaven that illuminates the priest or the king, falls equally upon the layman and the peasant.

Criticism of the ongoing program of restoration at Chartres will no doubt continue for years, as it has for other, significant restoration projects whose results have been controversial – most notably, that of the Sistine Chapel some years ago. The debate as to whether Chartres should be dirty and dingy, white and sparkly, or something in between will occupy the art and architecture comentariat for years to come. Yet regardless, the fact that people are once again looking at and talking about the importance of this monument to the Christian faith, is ultimately a good thing. Merely talking about this church may not fill up its pews, but as part of a rediscovery the rich treasury of Catholic culture and its influence on the world we inhabit today, it certainly cannot hurt.


The Gospel of Happiness

Today I’m very pleased and honored to once again be part of Image Books’ latest blog tour. This time we’re going to be looking at “The Gospel of Happiness”, a new book by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton, and professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.  My thoughts appear below, but to read what other bloggers have thought of it, be sure to visit the Image website, and click through the Blog tour links to see what other writers – including my friend Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos – are saying about this helpful addition to your bookshelf.

We begin, as we must, with an overview of what the author is trying to tell us with respect to living a happier life. I’m going to ask you to bear with me through this more formalized part of this post, since I think it only fair that I try to give you some general idea of what we’re talking about here. After which, I hope you’ll stick around since, while I don’t often share personal details on these pages, I do intend to share a little bit about my personal reaction to this book, in particular its final chapter, which I found it extremely helpful.

In “The Gospel of Happiness”, Christopher Kaczor outlines positive psychology, a concept which has gained significant traction in the field of psychology over the last few decades. Instead of taking a pathological – and these days ultimately pharmaceutical – approach to the study, understanding, and treatment of mental illness, positive psychology looks at ways in which people can bring about self-improvement through the adoption of more positive attitudes and reactions to the circumstances of their lives. Dr. Kaczor certainly does not suggest that *all* people suffering from depression, addiction, and other maladies can be helped through non-clinical intervention. Rather, if I may paraphrase his work, he advocates what the ancient Romans understood, which my Catholic readers will recognize immediately as the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola (and himself a significant influence on Dr. Kaczor’s own spirituality), of striving for the one-two combination of a sound mind in a sound body.

Positive psychology does not suggest that one must burst into a chorus of “Everything Is Awesome” whenever one is faced with difficult circumstances. Instead, it recognizes that in many cases, people can change their circumstances, or at least their reactions to them, by trying to focus on good things: those benefits they do possess despite their problems, ways they may be able to help others less fortunate than themselves, and so on. Dr. Kaczor takes pains to point out that positive psychology is not the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale notion of “the power of positive thinking”, nor the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mantra of the Baby Boom generation, as transmogrified by the cult of Oprah Winfrey and her prophets. Rather, positive psychology has its roots in scientific, clinical studies conducted over many years, which show that “[c]ultivating positive emotions can aid us in making wise decisions because when we are in a positive frame of mind, we can take a broader view of what is going on, and can be more open to building healthy relationships.”

Interestingly, as part of that analysis, Dr. Kaczor points out that many of the positive reinforcement ideas and methods advocated by this field of psychology are directly compatible with living the Christian life. While he acknowledges the influence of atheism and immorality in a number of psychological methods and theories, he also shows how, through the words of Christ and the examples of the saints, Christians can lead lives with the goal of more positive treatment of the self and others, and ultimately greater intimacy with God. Studies quoted throughout this volume have shown that people who are not just believers, but active in their faith, on the whole suffer far fewer incidents of clinical depression and other psychological issues, or recover more quickly from such problems, than those who have no faith or who are lackadaisical in the practices.

Here endeth our formal presentation.

On a personal level, I’m going to drop the veil – er, cape – a bit, and confess something: I need to have a good clear-out. There have been quite a number of things going on in my life over the last couple of years, and in particular over the past few months, that have left me in the position of recognizing that I need to do this. I look at where things stand and realize that while certain things are going extremely well, other things most definitely are in need of a shake-up.

Let me put it to you in a more visible way, by providing a single example: my desk at home is an absolute disaster. It is littered with the detritus of a disordered, reactionary, mostly sensual life. New books I haven’t started, unopened and unread copies of magazines, ticket stubs from long-completed travels, restaurant receipts from long-forgotten dinners, junk mail from every Catholic charity known to man, and many other such things are piled in teetering towers, just ready for The Cat to knock over. My desk has become emblematic of many aspects of both my spiritual life and my interpersonal relationships.

What Dr. Kaczor explains extremely well, in the final chapter of “The Gospel of Happiness”, is that when things get to this point, we need to take measured steps, without expecting perfection, and learn from our mistakes. An example he gives concerns gluttony, something which I’m sure even those with the most frugal appetites among us will recognize. He asks us to take a step back from giving in to the short-term pleasure of eating that candy bar at lunch, today, promising ourselves that we will give it up tomorrow. Are we willing to live with the consequences of eating a candy bar at lunch, every day, for 30 days in a row, while promising ourselves that “one day” we’ll give it up? He argues that it’s when we step back and see the whole picture, putting temporary emotions and desires in their place and recognizing as he puts it that tomorrow must be today, that we can learn to master ourselves better.

While all of Dr. Kaczor’s book is very much worth your time, it is in this final chapter, on strengthening the will, that I find he really hits the high notes, both in terms of practicality and spiritual counsel. When he looks into how and why we fail, and allow our feelings to overwhelm us, we can see that he is making a great deal of sense. It’s not enough simply to want to change certain negative behaviors or patterns in our lives, but rather understanding on a practical level what we can do about it, that Dr. Kaczor tackles brilliantly. With the help of prayer, spiritual direction, and not beating ourselves up all the time, he gives many examples and an outstanding summary of ways to move forward in your own internal life, as well as in your external relationships, so that God, neighbor, and self are all in balance.

So many books of popular psychology start out well but then fizzle out by the end. So many more simply overlook the experiences of people of faith as being irrelevant, at best, or antipathetic, at worst, to the practice of psychology. Neither of these characterizations apply to this book. For me personally, Dr. Kaczor has provided a bit of a way forward, for me to start cleaning things out and start moving rather than reacting again. Perhaps this work can do the same for you, or for someone you care about.