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



Barbecue and the Blessed Sacrament

If you’re a fellow Washington-area Catholic, then I’ve got two upcoming opportunities for you to help make this Summer a time for growth, rather than just waiting for the air conditioning to kick on.

With Pentecost Sunday this weekend, and the return to Ordinary Time to follow, we’re about to begin the “summer doldrums” period of the liturgical year.  Apart from Corpus Christi – which, sadly, is generally not celebrated in this country with as much fanfare as elsewhere – and the Feast of the Assumption in mid-August, there are no real high points on the Church calendar again until the Autumn.  Oftentimes parishes see attendance and participation drop as the temperature climbs.  It’s almost as if the return to green vestments gives the laity a desire to do little more than sit back and watch the grass grow.

That’s why Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can be a terrific way to keep from falling into spiritual laziness this Summer.  For those of you living and working in D.C., every Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm you can attend Adoration, followed by Benediction, at Epiphany Parish in Georgetown.  This beautiful old church is one of the smallest parishes in the Archdiocese, tucked away close to Rock Creek and a short walk from the Four Seasons, but many Washingtonians have no idea it is even there.  Father Adam Park, the pastor, is an energetic, dynamic young priest, who not only does a beautiful job with Adoration, but is also a great preacher and confessor.

Epiphany is not my parish, but I try to get there for Adoration whenever I can, even if I can’t stay for the whole hour.  Being able to pause at midweek, and engage in prayer or spiritual reading before the Blessed Sacrament, helps me to reflect on drawing closer to God and seeking to do better by Him.  It also, quite frankly, makes me shut up and be quiet, something I often find difficult to do.

If you’re not already familiar with Father Park or Epiphany, then there’s a great opportunity for you this weekend.   On Sunday the parish will be holding its annual “Light The Fire” barbecue for Pentecost, beginning after the 10:30 am Mass.  The event will give you the chance to meet Father Park, the diverse members of the parish community at Epiphany, and will feature both American AND Korean barbecue dishes.  If you appreciate the meat-and-flame combo as I do, then you know how very, very good this juxtaposition of grilling traditions is going to be.

I hope my readers who are able will not only take advantage of these opportunities right here in the city, but also share this information with others whom they think might be interested.  And of course, for those of you at greater distances who may not be able to attend these events, why not talk to your own pastor or a priest friend where you live, about having midweek Adoration at your parish during the Summer? Even though the Church steps back into Ordinary Time, the schools go on vacation, and there is much loafing about, you can make these lazy, hazy days something more spiritually significant, if you’re willing to give it a try.

Epiphany Parish in Georgetown (1926)

Epiphany Parish in Georgetown (Built 1924-1926)

Notes From A Small Town Part II

Since today is a holiday, and I am still sitting in my parents’ kitchen drinking coffee, I have the chance to write another blog post. And because this weekend has been one marked by various thoughts and reflections, I hope the reader will forgive me for doing a post similar to that of yesterday, i.e. a few short ideas for your consideration. Though they will be tied together at the end, if you will bear with me.

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If you are no longer living under your parents’ roof, you will no doubt recall that there came that heady occasion, that right of capitalist passage, when you got to make your own decisions about things large and small in your own place.  Take your food and household product selection for example.  When you are in charge of taking care of yourself and no one else is expected to help, then you get to decide what brand of laundry detergent, or coffee, etc. you want to have in your own place.

And yet when you go home, it is curious how the same, familiar brands, which you grew up with and may not choose for yourself now, are the ones that seem comforting. Of course your mother uses Brand A detergent to wash the clothes, and Brand B detergent to wash the dishes, even though you buy whatever is on sale.  Naturally your father reaches for Brand Y coffee and prefers Brand Z butter, because he always has – why change now?  Not having these things in the pantry, under the sink, and so on, would create a sense that you had somehow wandered into the wrong house.

Is there a lesson, here, rather than just an observation? Perhaps we could say, choose what you like for your own place, but if you don’t really have a strong preference, then go with what Dad and Mom preferred.  We could also observe, Dad and Mom have established a routine with these things, because they realize that the freedom of having so many things to choose from is really more of a distraction, after awhile, from more important things we have to do.

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The desire to create some order from chaos struck me as I was watching an episode of Father Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series last night on television with Mom – or rather, with Mom asleep next to me, as she was tired and a gentle-voiced priest from Chicago talking about Jesus and Thomas Aquinas was probably going to send her off to sleep, regardless of how interesting the talk was. I still have not seen all of the episodes of Father Barron’s series, just portions here and there, as I always seem to come in at the wrong time or miss it when it has been on.  It was good to sit down and get through one, complete episode for a change, particularly because it is such a beautifully shot and composed series overall, and Father Barron has such a clear, unfussy way of presenting things.

Several things he said during the episode I watched were ideas I wanted to be able to reflect on and read more about later; this is not an infrequent occurrence for me.  I may watch a television show like Father Barron’s, listen to a podcast, or hear a sermon at mass where there has been a particularly good piece of insight, perhaps once a week or more. And I then think to myself that I should write that insight down, so I can refer to it later.

If I am lucky I quickly type something into my phone or my computer, or jot something down on a notepad or a scrap of paper.  Yet I never seem to be good at systematically following up with these things, and transcribing them into some cohesive whole for future use.  Is it better to try to internalize the lesson learned at the time it is communicated, and then move on and get about your business?

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The preceding two ramblings are the sort of thoughts you (or at least I) tend to have when on vacation.  This is particularly the case when one is on holiday in a small, country town like this one, where there is very little to do, and frankly no real reason to do much of anything for the several days that one is visiting.  Like Thanksgiving, Easter, and other holidays, if you come from a small town and go home to visit for a few days, you will probably spend much of it loafing about, eating too much, falling asleep unexpectedly in a chair, and so on.

As pleasant as that may sound to continue indefinitely, being on a permanent holiday is not what we are meant to do with our lives. Going back to something Father Barron said in the aforementioned episode, if your primary goal in life is to accumulate pleasure and avoid pain, then you are not really living.  And Dad and Mom get about the business of life, rather than spending a great deal of time debating the minutiae of laundry detergent like some self-obsessed hipster taking his or her cues from whatever Madison Avenue wants him to believe.

All of us have things which we need to do, for ourselves and for others, which may be difficult at times, but definitely cannot be accomplished through a life of inaction brought about by indolence or by fear.  Whether we do nothing because we are lazy and want nothing but pleasure no matter how fleeting, or do nothing because we are afraid of our own mortality and bury our talents in the ground, either way the end result will be the same: disappointment.  We cannot live lives in a permanent vacation mode, revolving solely around avoiding reality.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, and at mass we were reminded of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Looking at this list, I know which gifts I need to pray for especially, as I am going through some changes in my own life. And perhaps you, gentle reader, recognize some that you need for yourself, in your life.  Do you need to make more of an effort to understand your children or your co-workers? Are you making a bare minimal effort to pray? Are you willfully embracing ignorance in some aspect of your life rather than educating yourself?

This evening as I and many other Americans hit the road to go back to our regular lives at the conclusion of the Memorial Day weekend, we will probably be doing so with some sense of regret that the relaxation and time with family or friends cannot continue indefinitely. Americans will not have another three-day weekend like this again until Labor Day, at the end of summer. So now that summer is unofficially here, perhaps setting ourselves a goal to be able to return to those family and friends by summer’s end and say, “Look how things have improved since Memorial Day!” is not such a bad plan, is it?  Now there will be something to get the village talking.

“Village Green” by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1800)
Private Collection