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One Day, Three Very Different Women

Sometimes the calendar presents us with juxtapositions that, were they presented in a film script, would be dismissed as being too implausible to be believed; today is one of those days.  For not only is March 25th the birthday of feminist Gloria Steinem, it’s also the birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation,  when the Virgin Mary said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, each of these women has left us very different legacies.

Steinem’s legacy is, in some sense, being debated this very day by Hobby Lobby and others at the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of whether businesses can be forced to pay for contraceptive devices such as IUD’s which they find morally objectionable on religious grounds.  One can imagine Steinem’s opinion of this court case without even having to look it up.  Steinem has entered her twilight years with what could charitably be referred to as a checkered and hypocritical legacy, at best.

Of course, Steinem leapt to fame in 1963 for doing a good thing: exposing how women were abused by the Playboy organization.  The problem is, the pornographic world we now inhabit, as a result of the so-called liberation which she helped usher in, is unquestionably more degrading and abusive in its objectification of women than what preceded it.  Steinem’s efforts have led to the enslavement of millions of women AND men to the recreational sex and pharmaceutical industries, the spread of sexually transmitted disease to a staggering 1/3 of the U.S. population, the creation of countless commitment-free relationships, and the explosion of illegitimacy across all levels of society.  Not to mention, of course, that as she marks her 80th birthday, and wipes away the hoary cobwebs from her mind, one suspects Steinem will not pause to think about the millions of American children who will never see their own birthdays, thanks to her efforts on behalf of legalizing abortion on demand.

Flannery O’Connor is someone altogether different: not just from Steinem, but indeed from most people.  Her fiction is not easy to read, in that it is sometimes violent, strangely mystical, and can involve unusual sentence constructions.  There is also a dark, wry humor in her work, which takes some getting used to.  My most beloved professor in college loved Flannery O’Connor, and she tried desperately to get us to like her writing also.  However whether because of being a Yankee rather than a Southerner, or having a deep-seated aversion to reading about physical violence, for years I was unable to understand or appreciate her work.

Then recently, I read reports of the publication of a newly-discovered prayer journal from O’Connor’s student days in Iowa.  This piqued my interest, not so much because I was interested in changing my mind about her as a fiction writer, but because some of the excerpts struck me as being those of a kindred soul.  I read quotes such as, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story- just like the typewriter was mine,” and I thought, “I *get* that.”  So I did what any sensible fellow should do under the circumstances: I bought a copy, and hopefully will be reading it a bit later on this Lenten season.

Finally we get to the great Feast of the Annunciation, on which Flannery O’Connor was born, and because of which her first name was actually “Mary”, in honor of the Blessed Mother – who as we know from St. Luke’s Gospel, said “Yes” when asked to become the mother of the Messiah. The Annunciation was a hugely popular subject in the history of Western art, as anyone who has studied art history knows.  One reason is that it allowed the artist to imagine what an angelic messenger appearing from Heaven might look like, as opposed to simply painting the humdrum and everyday.

Yet portraying the Annunciation also allowed a creative mind to consider what sort of person Mary herself was, at the moment she appeared on the stage of world history.  Keep in mind that, apocrypha and pious legends aside, other than Isaiah’s prophecy about her we really know nothing at all about Mary from Scripture up until this very moment when she consents to follow God’s Will for her.  What came after, of course, happened because she chose to cooperate, instead of trying to defeat or resist His Will.

In his “Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” of 1333, the Sienese painter Simone Martini portrayed the Virgin Mary not as a cowering, uncertain and now-pregnant teenager, nor as a self-confident queen setting out to conquer the world, but as a woman who has just been presented with some very unsettling news by an unexpected visitor.  Had Steinem been present she would have called Gabriel all sorts of names culled from reading too much Simone de Beauvoir, and rushed the Blessed Mother off to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.  Yet there is a timeless humanity here, in this nearly 800-year-old depiction of Mary, which I suspect O’Connor, who was so often presented with unexpected and indeed unwanted news in her own life, would have related to.

The difference lies in the reaction of each of these women to what they are being confronted with.  Whereas Steinem’s choice has always been to blame others for her own misery, and to try to drag down as many into misery with her as she can, O’Connor’s decision was to follow God’s Will in her life, no matter how difficult that might have been.  In this, she had a deeper understanding of the “Yes” to God’s Will, given by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the implications of such consent, than do those of us who live lives of relative comfort and good health.

In her story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”, O’Connor describes a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, who worries that she can never become a saint.  Through some unusual and unexpected events, she experiences a profound spiritual revelation about the Will of God, even though that lesson is not apparent to those around her.  As the story ends, one senses that she has begun a great spiritual journey, as did the Virgin Mary, beginning on this Feast of the Annunciation, and as did Flannery O’Connor, who grew as both a writer and a woman of faith.  These are the two women among the three whom we should celebrate, even as we pray for the conversion of the other, who will no doubt be receiving the lion’s share of attention on this day.

Detail of "The Annunciation" by Simone Martini (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Detail of “The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” by Simone Martini (1333)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

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Hope and Shoelaces

Have you ever stopped to think about how you learned to tie your shoes?  It’s a skill which is pretty close to a necessity, at least in Western culture.  For me, the experience was rather difficult, yet now I can look back and say that I learned about fear and hope, and how they motivate us.  Perceiving the difference between these two motivators is a much more valuable lesson than simply learning how to work with shoelaces.

When I started kindergarten, I was playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons, just as most 5-year-old American boys do.  Unlike my classmates however, I was already at a comprehension level somewhat more advanced than theirs.  I read adult-level books on subjects such as astronomy, Egyptology, and paleontology, for example, and enjoyed listening to Haydn and Beethoven symphonies.  In short, I was (and still am) a nerd. 

Yet whatever intellectual capabilities I may have had, there was one thing which I absolutely could not get down: tying my shoes. In fact, I was the very last person in my kindergarten class to learn how to tie my shoes properly.  Despite my interest in subjects like physics, I would sit there for hours trying to figure out how in the world to coordinate my fingers to pull the two ends of the shoelace into a bow.

As the school year wore on, I became more and more embarrassed by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could not tie his shoes. Frequently, I had to go to my teacher for help, if my shoes became untied on the playground.  She would show me how to do it, but try as I might I simply could not replicate her movements.  And kids being kids, my classmates started to take note of my inability to learn this skill, and began mocking me for it.

At home, my parents did their best to try to help me learn how to tie my shoes, although with my being left-handed and naturally clumsy, no doubt I tried their patience no end. Despite hours of practice, I seemed to make no progress at all. I became deeply upset, and asked God why He couldn’t just show me how to tie my shoes.  Yet I was doing so not because I thought it was important that I learn, but rather so that the kids at school would stop making fun of me.  In other words, I was motivated by fear, rather than hope.

Then one day in late spring, as I was approaching my 6th birthday, I remember being in the coat closet – or “cloak room” as they were called in Catholic schools – and noticing that my left shoe was untied.  By this point, I had become so used to being mocked that I just accepted it and told no one about the regular taunts I received.  I still wanted to learn how to tie my shoes, but whereas before I wanted to do so in order to avoid humiliation, now I wanted to learn how to do it because I was really looking forward to moving up to first grade, and being in school all day long.  I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to go, unless I could tie my shoes.

So instead of asking for help one more time, I bent down to try to tie my shoe.  And for no apparent reason, everything finally fell into place.  Eureka!

I was so overjoyed that I ran out to tell my teacher the good news.  I can still remember the look of relief on her face when she found out I could do it.  No doubt she had not been looking forward to writing an end-of-year report on whether I was ready for 1st grade, explaining why I still could not tie my shoes.

Last evening I thought of this experience following a conversation with someone whose opinion I value highly.  Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about what I ought to be doing with my life, since I just keep ploughing away, doing what I do, but at the same time sensing that I ought to be moving in another direction.  To date, I have seen no lifelong instruction manual saying,  “Here’s what you should do next.”  The response to my observation was, maybe He already has shown you what to do, but you just haven’t realized it yet.

And that comment brings me back to where this blog post began.  Because when it came to learning how to tie my shoes, I did not have a supernatural messenger appear beside me and guide my fingers, no matter how much I wanted someone else to just make things happen for me.  People showed me what to do, but my primary goal for a long time was not to improve myself, but rather to escape from something negative.  Fear, rather than hope, was my motivator.

Eventually, I stopped worrying and starting hoping.  I wanted to succeed and move up to 1st grade, so I could enjoy all of the knowledge I would be able to pick up there.  I wasn’t going to get there if I kept worrying.  Instead, I chose to keep trying, until eventually I was finally able to achieve what I needed to.

Sure, I would have liked the instant gratification and deliverance from self-doubt that a sudden answer to my prayers would have given me.  Instead, I had to learn – not for the first time – the virtue of holding on, and persisting in the face of the unknown, whatever the difficulties.  In other words, by having to wait so long, I had to learn how to hope.

And hope does not disappoint.

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St. Martha and the Apostolate of Polite Society

Many years ago I recall reading a story about Red Cross volunteers in Britain during the War.  As they were being assigned tasks, the society women who had presented themselves were appalled at the roles they were being asked to take on.  Many of these well-to-women were being told to do extremely menial, often very dirty jobs, which would normally be assigned to their domestic servants or manual workers.  Folding linen or arranging flowers was one thing, but to have to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub out toilets (and what tends to fall onto the floor surrounding toilets) was simply beyond their comprehension.

Realizing that nothing was going to be accomplished this way, a duchess who was the highest-ranking society lady among them – possibly the Duchess of Devonshire but I cannot recall for certain – volunteered to scrub out the latrines.  The ladies around her then realized that if a woman of such a high place in society would willingly humble herself in this way, then they themselves could not but swallow their pride and imitate her example.  After that, things rolled along smoothly.

I was thinking about this tale this morning in reflecting on the life of St. Martha of Bethany, whose feast day is today.  St. Martha as the reader may well know was  the sister of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus, who the Bible tells us were all friends of Jesus.  Indeed, St. John specifically tells us that Jesus “loved” these three siblings, meaning they were very close friends indeed.

Unfortunately, St. Martha is thought of in an off-hand sort of way.  We get the impression that she was a fastidious hostess, a kind of Margo Leadbetter of Scripture, because of Christ’s famous admonition to her of, “Martha, Martha…”, when she was striding about the house getting things ready, while her sister sat at the feet of Jesus.  We think about that instruction and how it applies to us at times, perhaps, but we forget that Christ’s message was first applied directly to St. Martha herself, and that she must have taken in His words and thought deeply about them.

In focusing on that particular part of what we know of St. Martha’s life, we ignore what happened later.  Keep in mind that St. Martha is recognized as a saint in Heaven.  And she did not reach that point by throwing the best dinner parties in suburban Jerusalem, but rather as a result of the fact that she rose to the occasion by humbling herself.

After the death of her brother, when Jesus returns to Bethany to pay His respects, St. Martha does several highly unusual things for someone of her (assumed) character:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

(St. John 11:20-28)

Note that when she learns Jesus is arriving in Bethany, St. Martha was in official mourning.  No doubt she was dressed in black, receiving visitors, and performing all the duties which the woman who is the head of a household was expected to perform upon the death of a close relative.  Keep in mind how rigid the social customs and conventions of her day were, and how far more stringent they were under these circumstances compared to today.  

Just to raise a couple of points among many which we could consider, note instead of waiting for Christ to come to her, which would have been the proper and customary thing to do, St. Martha leaves the house full of relatives and guests and comes out to meet Jesus on the road. This would no doubt have been considered extremely improper by her peers. Yet just by that one act, it shows us that St. Martha has internalized Christ’s earlier message to her about knowing when to stop worrying about conventions and social proprieties and start thinking about what people actually need, like the example of the highly proper and socially upright Miss Deborah Jenkins in “Cranford”, walking in a funeral procession alongside a devastated young woman who has just lost her only sibling, in complete rejection of the accepted standards of the time, because she was needed and regardless of her personal feelings on the matter.

And then there is the kicker.  For when Jesus declares that “I am the resurrection and the life,” a statement which is so often reflected upon by Christians in times of crisis, and which we forget was said in the context of this conversation with St. Martha, how does St. Martha respond to His question?  By committing what the chief priests, scribes, and her own neighbors would have considered an act of blasphemy: she declares that she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and not just that, but the Son of God.

By stating what she did, in public, in front of witnesses, St. Martha could have been stoned to death on the spot.  St. Martha, society hostess, always worrying about things which two thousand years later we would expect someone like Martha Stewart to be fussing over – whether the soup is the right temperature, or if the new linen will be ready in time for her next social event, or whether this new wine is going to be too bold to go with the fish – suddenly finds herself making an extraordinary act of faith that could quite literally have gotten her killed.  She humbles herself and puts her own life at risk, so as to glorify God.

On her feast day then, let us take a step back and look at St. Martha in a bit of a wider perspective than what we often call to mind with respect to her role in salvation history.  There is nothing wrong with having high standards for behavior, speech, dress, etc., or taking care of the needs of life in such a way as to want to do them well.  Yet St. Martha learned, and clearly internalized, what Jesus taught her, which is that one must be willing to put all of that aside, and to humble oneself before God, rather than let the concerns of this world obscure the goal of the next.

And as a postscript, I like to think that St. Martha was allowed by Our Lord to see that British duchess on her hands and knees, scrubbing toilets with as much care as she would normally have put into adorning her own person or arranging flowers in a crystal vase, and that she recognized a bit of herself in it.

Fantin

“White Roses” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875)
York Art Gallery, York, England

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Cities, Art, and the Self: On the Virtues of Visiting Museums When Traveling

A good of friend of mine is headed to Barcelona this weekend, and asked me for a few recommendations on what he absolutely must see while he is there.  Knowing him reasonably well, and also what he ought to see on a first visit, I did not include many of the great art museums in the city since, despite Barcelona’s prominence as an art and design capital, sending someone to wander through hallways full of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and drawings would probably prevent them from seeing many of the interesting buildings, streets, and squares which make the city unique.  Yet in doing so, on reflection, I realize that I erred greatly. For he will only be getting a part of the story of what makes the city he is visiting so special, because we so often forget that works of art tell us a lot about both ourselves, and the cities where those works of art happen to be housed.

Take Michelangelo’s monumental “David”, for example, which is the most famous sculpture in the city of Florence.  The figure of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who managed to slay a giant several times his size, had a great deal of meaning for the small Florentine Republic, which often found itself fighting enemies much greater in size.  Or think of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, which despite its Milanese provenance has resided in France since the time Da Vinci moved there toward the end of his life, to work for King Francois I.  One sees this image and immediately thinks not of Northern Italy, but of Paris, since after leaving the royal collections she has been smiling down at the public from the walls of The Louvre since the late 18th century.

There are many more examples of works of art, commissioned by or which have passed into the public collections of cities around the world, which those among us with an appreciation for history and culture visit as if on pilgrimage when we go to certain cities.  One must see Velázquez’ “Las Meninas” in Madrid; in Dresden, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”; in Chicago, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on Le Grande Jatte”.  To go to these places and not see these masterworks is a bit like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheese steak.  They are so interwoven into the collective cultural fabric of the cities where these works happen to reside, that their omnipresence on everything from advertising posters on public transit systems to postcards and knickknacks at the newsagents’ almost causes us to forget they are there.

Art appreciation is not simply a course which one has to pass in high school, but rather it is meant to be something which informs you about not only where you live, but where other people live as well.  The next time you travel therefore, consider doing a little research in advance to see what are the important works of art in the city you happen to be visiting, to see what you can learn about the place you are sojourning, and perhaps learn a bit more about yourself in the process.  What sorts of images do you respond to, and how do they make you see the city in which you happen to be when you are looking at them?

For example, in Manhattan you can pay a visit to Sargent’s seductive and justly famous “Portrait of Madame X” at the Metropolitan.  Ask yourself how, even though she was a Louisianan painted in France by a painter from Massachusetts, Madame X rather aptly reflects the city and indeed the neighborhood in which she has subsequently come to reside, so close to the commercial palaces and fashion industry giants on 5th and Madison Avenues.  Her portrait created a scandal when it was displayed, yet now it seems surprisingly demure.  How has New York, and indeed the world, changed from the days in which her alleged love affairs and fashion sense were a cause célèbre in society?

Returning to Barcelona, what I should have done for my friend at the very least is to send him to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, which without question has the best collection of art from the Romanesque period (roughly 1000-1300 A.D.) in the world.  Probably the two most important works of art in the collection are the “Christ Pantocrator” fresco of c. 1123 from the apse of the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, and the painted wooden crucifix known as the “Majestat Batlló”, of about the same date.  One sees the use of elements of their composition in objects and images all over the city, and in fact I have small-scale reproductions of both in my home oratory.  Their familiarity as images, their devotional quality as works of Catholic art, and their reminder of a time when my favorite part of the world was deeply and colorfully Catholic, help me to feel grounded in the way I think about my faith. They are visual reminders of my own perceptions of the world in a way which some other images of Christ may not be, no matter how aesthetically beautiful.

That, in the end, is one of the joys of coming to know and appreciate great art, for it tells you much about yourself and where you happen to be at this moment in your life; what does and what does not matter to you; even about where you are likely headed, than you might otherwise believe possible.

BatlloDetail of the “Majestat Batlló” (c. 1100-1125)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

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Into the Lions’ Den

If you have been following the news lately then you are aware of a manufactured news story which made national headlines, about the effort by a group of gay marriage activists to remove a Catholic priest from the Newman Center ministry at George Washington University here in the Nation’s Capital for doing his job, i.e. teaching the Catholic faith, hard as it is for many to accept. What you will not be aware of is that the priest in question, Father Greg Shaffer, is a friend of mine, and someone whom I respect greatly. He has not asked me to write what I am about to share with you, and I will refrain from speaking about him personally other than in general terms. However there comes a time when attacking the Church moves from debates and hypotheticals into attacks on people whom we care about, and in fact on what forms the very essence of who we are as Christians. Therefore I hope Father Greg will forgive me for adding my two rather measly cents to circumstances in which he certainly needs no help from me, but in which I am proud to offer whatever support I can.

Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a mass concelebrated by Father Greg with Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and a number of other priests. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages know that Newman Center masses are not really my style, as guitars and what is referred to as “praise and worship music” make me wince. Nevertheless, this is a question of taste, for it has been a long time since I was an undergraduate, and more importantly there is no question whatsoever regarding Father Greg’s orthodoxy – he is probably the priest most passionately devoted to the Blessed Sacrament that I have ever met. Plus, when your Cardinal-Archbishop comes to visit, you can hardly want to stay away. Never let it be said that I have turned down an opportunity to kiss the episcopal ring.

The mass itself was beautiful, and the congregation full. We were very fortunate to have Cardinal Wuerl come straight from the airport off a flight from Rome in order to be able to celebrate with us and publicly demonstrate his support, and despite some obvious fatigue and jetlag His Eminence soldiered on. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of enthusiasm both for him, and for Father Greg among those assembled for mass.

Yet the most striking thing about the mass itself was unquestionably the Cardinal’s homily. Fortunately for those of you who were not able to attend this mass, the Cardinal has posted the text of this sermon on his blog, which you can read here. It is not only a powerful statement of support for Father Greg personally, the challenges of Christ’s teachings, and the dangers of limiting religious liberty, but more importantly I believe it is something that Catholics anywhere in this country, and indeed worldwide, can read to remind themselves that they are not alone. Indeed, toward the end of his homily, His Eminence quite literally brought me to tears when he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, never be ashamed of Christ, his Gospel, his Truth – or your identity as Jesus’ disciples. Always be proud of who you are.”

Cardinal Wuerl clearly knows what is happening in our society and is responding to it, in his own particular way and gentle charism, just as his brother bishops such as Cardinals Dolan and George, and Archbisshops Chaput and Lori, among others, are doing in their own dioceses. In doing so they are following in the footsteps of their predecessors in leading Christ’s flock, from St. Peter and the Apostles onward, even when it would be so much easier and more comfortable to say nothing. We all know from history that, apart from St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, going along to get along is what happened to the English bishops, when Henry VIII decided that his own sexual incontinence was more important than his immortal soul, and indeed more important than the immortal souls of the English people.

How blessed we are, by contrast, that in the current age of impending persecution – for make no mistake, that day has arrived – that we Catholics have bishops, priests, and religious who are not afraid to witness to the truth of our Faith, through the teachings of Christ and His Church. We Catholics are all members of a Church on Earth made up entirely of sinners, who are constantly falling and having to pick ourselves up again. That is something which is hard enough to do when things are going relatively well. Yet to be able to do so while being under attack is something that will test not only the mettle of our shepherds, but our own as well.

daniel_in_the_lions

“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Rivière (1872)
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

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