Lessons from the Farmyard: Are You a Pig?

Having grown up in a small town in the countryside, not on a farm myself but surrounded by them, I was fortunate enough to have a sense not only of where our food comes from, but of what it takes to go from barn to supermarket to dinner table.  I can spot the difference between soybeans, alfalfa, and corn beginning to emerge from the ground.  I know that some of the animals I might see standing about in the pasture today, will not be there in a few months’ time.  I can also discern the difference – at a distance – between the odors of cow, pig, and sheep manure fertilizer.

And because I know it when I smell it, I think it’s time for us to take a step back, and take a big whiff of what society is telling us about the Church: because quite frankly, it’s a load of…droppings.

Christianity is increasingly presented as an obstacle to personal fulfillment, however one chooses to define that term this week.  Many Catholics around the country seem to be agreeing with that assessment, if you saw the recent map showing the distribution of the major religions of the United States.  Although Catholics are now the largest religious group in this country, many of the states where Catholics are the majority have Mass attendance levels which barely keep the parishes open, causing one to wonder what exactly these Catholics actually believe.

What is the root cause of this blight?  The fault, we are often told, lies in the rigid history of the Church, the negative aspects of which are repeated over and over again by uneducated entertainers, bitter academics, and the chat show hosts who fawn over them both.  The alternative, or rather the only acceptable option now available to us, is a Christianity that conforms, rather than divides.  We are all to be pigs together, not sheep and goats.

Under this scenario, one can snarf up from the communal trough whatever one likes, provided that no one else is offended by it.  If only we agree to eat the same garbage that everyone else is eating, we are told, we would be much happier, and the world would be a better place.  We would have things like fatter wallets, bigger muscles, and newer gadgets, making us into prize specimens, little gods of the domestic barnyard.  And as we roll long our merry way, contentedly stuffing ourselves until we glisten in the summer sunshine, we forget what ultimately happens to farm animals.

If the line of reasoning presently being foisted upon us by the media and commentariat seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s been tried before – and worked.  For this is a shadow that has dogged our steps since the days of our first parents in Eden, despite those who try to dismiss their story as little more than a fairy tale.  “If only” you do this, we’re told, as they were, you’ll be gods.  The delivery may be different, since we don’t see many talking snakes these days, but if the formula works, why change it?  Call it individualism, or self-actualization, or what you will, but the idea that abandoning the cross in order to embrace material things will keep us from suffering and death is the real fairy tale.

In fact, the only difference between Eden and today, is that the Tempter’s message has gone mainstream.  Now it comes from people like self-help gurus, investment professionals, motivational speakers, and even supposed “Christian” evangelists.  They come onto our televisions and into our inboxes, telling us how we can avoid the fate of all human beings for only 3 easy payments of $19,95.  It comes from magazines and films that demand we pursue our own pleasure, whatever it might be, because it “feels” right, never having to consider why something as transient as a mere feeling is rarely going to serve us well.  And in the end, those who promise us that they can turn us into prize pigs end up losing everything themselves, sooner or later.

It isn’t easy to resist the urge to join in the feeding frenzy at the trough, particularly when you’re constantly being told that you need to accept the garbage you’re being fed in order for your life to be a success.  However, we will not cheat suffering, or keep death from the gate, by turning ourselves into creatures driven by our appetites.  Our eyes need to be fixed on our church steeples, not on the various screens filled with garbage that, like pig troughs, so often remain the intent focus of the human gaze.

Let’s make a point this summer, just as the crops themselves are growing in anticipation of the harvest this autumn, to try in grow in the courage and steadfastness which will remind us that we follow a Good Shepherd, not a Cool Swineherd.

Detail of "The Church at Mont-roig del Camp" by joan Miró (1919) Private Collection, Spain

Detail of “The Church at Mont-roig del Camp” by joan Miró (1919)
Private Collection, Spain


Rejoicing with Our Mothers

As I write this, I’m on my way home to Pennsylvania for Mother’s Day weekend to visit my parents.  In my family we’ve never made a big deal of either Mother’s Day or Father’s Day – too secular and commercial, my Mother always said.  Realistically however, their children know that they would love a little something, even just a greeting card, to let them know that we are grateful for the gift of life they gave us.

The other day a friend on social media observed that he was unaware of which holiday he was supposed to be celebrating on that particular day of the week.  Secularism has provided us with a wealth of these invented occasions to make up for the emptiness that materialism and the objectification of others has brought to our culture.  If you do an online search for holidays, you will find not only the familiar ones, both historic and religious, but ones you have probably never heard of.  The “Great American Grump Out” was one of a dozen “holidays” that just so happened to fall upon the date in question.

Fortunately, as a Catholic, I have other days that I can mark, which are the Feasts and Saints’ Days celebrated by the Church for centuries.  Sometimes these celebrations have a local flavor, like the floral carpets laid out on sidewalks in Catalonia for Corpus Christi, or they may be more internationally popular, such as eating fatty foods on Mardi Gras, i.e. “Fat Tuesday”.  Other opportunities exist to revive or interpret traditions of your own, such as going out for pints on the Feast of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers.

While Mother’s Day is really little more than a commercially designed opportunity to make you feel bad and spend money, fortunately it comes during the month of May, which traditionally has been dedicated to Our Lady.  It’s a chance during this Easter season to appreciate the words of the ancient prayer known as the “Regina Coeli”, with its emphasis on how indeed she whom the Angel Gabriel called, “full of grace”, was blessed to be able to see God’s promise to His people fulfilled, in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  “The Son whom you merited to bear, Alleluia, has risen, as He said, Alleluia.”

Perhaps this Mother’s Day Sunday, that is something for all of us to focus on, more than we do on cards, flowers, or taking our mothers to brunch.  Our mothers said “Yes” to bearing us, their children, and we should each individually be grateful for that.  Yet the “Yes” of this one mother 2,000 years ago in Judea, the one who was made our heavenly mother by her Divine Son even as He was dying on the Cross, led to the hope for eternal life which all Christians share.  Let’s be sure to thank her, too, for being such a good mother to all of us in the Church, through her willingness to seek the Will of God, and for setting an example of perseverance in Faith, no matter what happens, which all of us can try to follow.

Detail of "Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection" by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520) Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

Detail of “Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection” by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520)
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands


What’s In Your Wardrobe?

This weekend I decided it was time to have a good old closet clear-out.  With temperatures approaching summer levels here in Washington later this week, it was only sensible to change the wardrobe over from Winter to Summer gear.  In the process, I ended up with a pile of castoffs about four feet high, consisting of some suits I never wear, several pairs of trousers that are a bit too worn to hold onto, and a number of coats and jackets that have barely seen the light of day in a year.

According to most lifestyle experts, this de-hoarding process will make my life better. If I just go through and toss anything I haven’t worn in the last 6-12 months, I’ll simplify my life.  Everything around me will be so much more fulfilling, once I have less “stuff” in it.

Except, of course, that they’re lying about their motivations for telling me this.

In my 150-year-old house, the justification for clearing out the closets is obvious; in fact, closets were probably something of an afterthought by the builder, meaning space is at a premium.  I have no problem trying to figure out how to get rid of things I don’t need.  What is harder is noting the passage of time that comes part and parcel with this process, which can be a bit of a temporary downer.

Fortunately, the media is more than happy to provide an antidote to that feeling.  For the morning news show producers and the glossy magazine editors don’t really want you to simplify your life.  They’re not particularly interested in whether you would now have more time to do things like go work charitably on behalf of the poor, or focus on building your relationship with God, or spending time talking with your spouse, family and friends.  Rather, what they want you to do is to buy more stuff.

Yes that’s right, the irony is, after having convinced you to empty out your closets, and making you depressed about how you don’t have the figure you used to have, or how you’re too old to wear some of the things you used to love, or you spent a fortune on something that actually looks terrible on you and is now out of fashion, the secular media wants you to fill all those drawers you just emptied right back up again.  Their goal isn’t teaching you simplification: it’s making you addicted to materialism.  Once you realize what they’re doing, their power is broken, but unfortunately too many people never stop to think about it.

I’ve always been something of a clothes horse, ever since I can remember, so the semi-annual wardrobe clear-out is something that I’ve always done, and will probably continue to do well into the future.  Yet one day – God willing many decades from now – someone else will be doing a last clear-out of whatever is  hanging in my closet at that time.  Hopefully, when they do so, they’ll note that I was a good dresser, because frankly, I enjoy that sort of thing.  However, I hope that they’ll be more likely to think to themselves about my being a good human being, who cared more about people and things that truly matter, than I did about the empty, addictive promises of materialism.

"Illustration of Beau Brummell" by Richard Dighton (1805)

“Illustration of Beau Brummell” by Richard Dighton (1805)