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40 Days of Prayer for Lent

Prayer and image from the 40 Days for Healing the Wounds From Abortion website

Prayer and image from the 40 Days for Healing the Wounds From Abortion website

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Wondering How To Help?

Photo credit BRYAN PACE FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

As people continue to struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on the East coast, you may be wondering what you can do to help. There are several options:

* As in any emergency involving injuries, the need for blood is great. The American Red Cross is seeking people willing and able to make blood donations. In addition, the Red Cross is providing food and shelter to those in need.

* Catholic Charities is providing disaster relief to victims of the storm in this country, wherever it is needed.

* Matthew Petronis, a student at the Catholic University of America, grew up and still resides in the Breezy Point neighborhood in New York which I posted about here. He is organizing a grass roots fundraising effort to help the people there during this difficult time with an eye towards getting them through the present to a future of rebuilding. It’s a beautiful witness of faith in action. Matthew has petitioned to have the effort recognized as a nonprofit for tax purposes. And if you can’t give financially, they are also collecting materials goods to help the people who have lost everything there. You can find out more here.

* ShelterBox works with people in need around the world and is monitoring the need from Hurricane Sandy and is prepared to step in if need arises. You can stay informed about whether ShelterBox has opportunities to help and find out more about what they do here.

I have listed here opportunities that clearly direct relief donations to the situation at hand. If you know of others, please share them here. Our thoughts and prayers continue to accompany those who have been affected by the storm.

Directing Our Hope

My friend, Theresa Bonopartis who lives in Brooklyn NY, sent me this picture — one of the only things left standing in the NY neighborhood of Breezy Point, where 80 homes were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. 

Beauty Break: “The Red Balloon”

This is a lovely little film which I only just saw for the first time, at the suggestion of a good friend. It’s elegant simplicity and innocence provide the perfect vehicle for suggesting the ways we take ordinary beauty for granted and how the effort to recognize and preserve this extraordinary beauty in the every day pays off a hundredfold. It’s also a reminder about the need to be more childlike, humble, and trusting in our approach to life. Enjoy!

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

The Holy Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One of the very best books I read this summer — perhaps all year — was Christian McEwan’s lovely World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. I posted an excerpt here that really spoke to me. Christian points true north in her recommendation that we reclaim quiet and slowness, and relearn to savor awareness in lives too often gone awry by speed, haste, and multi-tasking, our creativity and imagination suffocated by the noise that attends these harried, unfocused but increasingly “normal” behaviors. I have an intrinsic horror of chaos and I do not believe it is possible for me to live a truly creative life, in either a spiritual or an artistic sense,  in an environment that seeks to encourage chaos instead of order, harmony, and balance.

The truth is, I don’t have to participate in the chaos. I do have a choice, though I may be made to feel as though I don’t, or that in exercising my choice to slow down and swim on my own side of the stream I am somehow “not with it” and need to “get up to speed.” I’ve been struggling with the sense that my life, my mind, my health, and my world have all been unravelling with greater speed and urgency over the last couple of years, so Christian’s book was just what the doctor ordered. I took quite seriously her encouragement to “Choose to refuse,” and have been practicing the simple art of saying “No,” along with the attendant art of not apologizing or feeling guilty for saying it and using the resulting new-found time to be more available to the opportunities God is offering to me in the sacrament of the present moment.

Being more present to what is happening in the moment is necessarily going to look different for each person. It all depends on how plugged in or overextended you are. A good friend of mine is experimenting with unplugging from the Internet each weekend to allow for quiet spaces to process her writing. One thing I’m doing is trying to stay with the task at hand and resist heartily the urge to multi-task — meaning if I’m helping my son with his math lesson and the phone rings, I let it ring. This is extremely difficult to do because as a full-time mother and housewife, full-time home schooler, and part-time high school teacher I’ve got my hands full and there is rarely a moment when someone doesn’t want or need something from me. How do I meet everyone’s needs and still have something left over? Prayer is essential, but so is slowing down and making a place for quiet and a more moderate pace through the day.

One of the things people praise our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for is his ability to make the person with whom he is speaking feel like the only person in the world. This is a tall order. But should it be? Why is it so hard for us to pay attention to who or what is right in front of us, without being distracted by something or someone else? Obviously, prudence and discretion is required: if I’m driving and my son wants me to look at or listen to something that requires too much of my attention, well, he simply has to wait. Keeping us alive and safe in that moment is the most important thing. But in this time of instant gratification and self-centered social interactions, this kind of patience is difficult to acquire and practice, for others and for ourselves. Yet it seems to me essential. Rather than whipping myself and others into higher speed, I must learn to be OK with allowing myself and others to move slow, appreciating the time it takes to be on task and do a job well and thoroughly before moving on to something else, and allowing the person I’m interacting with the gift of my full and undivided attention. Because God is present to me in the moment, not in the next thing on my to-do list, not in what I could be doing instead. But right there, in what I am doing NOW, in who I am with NOW.

Michelle Aldredge at gwarlingo has taken up the clarion call issued in McEwan’s World Enough and Time and has an article today about Christian and her book as part of her new series on creativity, which I highly recommend following — it’s worth every minute you’ll spend reading. You can also hear an interview with Christian on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon. Christian’s book is worth seeking out and reading slowly. Treat it like a personal retreat, a gift to yourself, a promise to take back some of what you might be allowing to be taken from you. Reading it may be a step towards reclaiming a more creatively aware, spiritually intuitive self. Not everyone is going to be happy with your choosing to refuse and not everyone will understand the grace that will be revealed to you in each moment that you choose to pay attention and focus on what is happening NOW. But you’ll be better for it and the inner change it will work in you will be evidence that you’re on the right path to living a saner, more peaceful, more present life.

What have you got to lose?

Beautiful Book Pick: Sarah’s Key

Every once in awhile, some one stumbles upon something that is a revelation to her, something that forces her to rethink a singular event. That event can no longer be viewed as just happening to a large group of anonymous people. Now it is seen as having happened to one person, a person with a name, a heart, feelings and a life who was changed forever by that singular event. Thus, it can be said that some of the best historical fiction focuses on unexplored, uncomfortable, or even secret events that really happened. Examining history through the lens of little explored — or selectively forgotten  — events provides an opportunity to rethink what we already know, and ponder more deeply what still lies hidden from our view.

In her novel Sarah’s Key, Tatiana De Rosnay confronts the difficulties involved in bringing these historical secrets to light. She turns the spotlight on a significant but little explored event that many in France, and the world, would likely prefer to forget: the  cooperation of the French police with Nazi demands for the deportation of French Jews during WWII that resulted in what has come to be called the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  It’s a can’t-put-it-down read that forces us to examine the everyday injustices that we participate in, either by direct cooperation or simply by not speaking or acting out against them.

The plot turns on Julia Jarmond, a 40-ish American journalist living in Paris, assigned to cover the commemorative anniversary of the Roundup for an American Paris weekly. In the beginning of the novel, short chapters alternate deftly between the past — specifically, July 1942, following one anonymous family, and more particularly the daughter of that family, through the Vel’ d’Hiv — and the present, in which we become acquainted with Julia and the unusual circumstances that end up making her the perfect, the only, person who could truly write this story. Somewhere near the middle of the novel, the parallel lines of the lives of these two women converge in an intense conflagration.

Deportation of Jews from France/ Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The anonymity of the Jewish family who are victims of the roundup underscores the intensely essential, but often forgotten fact, that history happens to individual human beings. The acts of individuals or collective groups have astonishing and often irreparable and horrific consequences in the lives of everyday people. This is a reality glossed over by the sweeping, impersonal, and biased narratives of history books throughout the world. Every character tellingly has a name in the 1942 portions of the novel, except the “girl” and her family. “The girl” is at once no one to those who wish to exterminate her, but is in every sense SOME ONE to those who love her. This nameless “girl” lived through an atrocity no one wants to think about or remember. She lives, breathes, feels, and believes and she has a story to tell, a promise to keep, and a difference to make. 

From the very beginning, Julia encounters many obstacles to completing her assignment — her husband, Bernard, and his family refuse to condone her research as worthwhile and make every effort to discourage her completely from proceeding. In addition, much historical evidence of the Roundup has been conveniently wiped away: the buildings in the area of the Velodrome and the Velodrome itself have all been razed, articles and pictures are hard to come by except through one Jewish agency who still seeks to find and name all those missing in the Holocaust, and the majority of witnesses are deceased. No one, it seems, thinks the Vel’ d’Hiv worth remembering or worth writing about. On top of everything, Julia struggles with a disintegrating marriage and the feeling that she is fading, disconnected from who and what she thought she’d become. The assignment, despite its difficulties, renews her sense of purpose and her joy in her vocation while presenting her with the challenge of puzzling out and asserting an individual identity from amidst a group that would seek to annihilate it.

There are two holocausts personified in the novel. The Jewish holocaust is juxtaposed against another holocaust, no less morally problematic and reprehensible. Julia is forced to choose either to confront or to participate in this modern-day atrocity.  The juxtaposition of moral choices and the individual’s participation in murder through lack of defiance or failure to speak weighs the holocaust of one generation against that of another with very disturbing parallels, which Julia fails to see (at least early on). While she is confused and repulsed by those who stood by and failed to do anything to save those who were rounded up and deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv, she herself fails to recognize the moral turpitude of her own situation until it is nearly too late. This is a theme that pervades the novel from beginning to end: It is easier to go with the flow, to do nothing that will cause commotion, to simply give in and cooperate. It is easier to ignore, to forget……. The saying that history repeats itself is never more true than in this fact: we often fail to take the lessons from history and apply it to ourselves, to our own society or personal situations; hence, what seems innocuous and gradually asserts itself as the moral norm is really the germ of some past nefarious deed reincarnating itself under another form, with the same devastating effects.

If there is any fault with the book it might be that the ending is a little too tidy or predictable, and there are places in the last quarter of the book where the writing slips into sentimentality or a reliance on easy plot devices. But these minor technicalities are forgiveable and do not take anything away from the main action of the novel — Julia’s growth and catharsis through this intimate and personal encounter with individuals who were previously “dead” in their anonymity — an anonymity forced upon them because their experience was too horrible to look upon or contemplate, because there was no one who could or would help them live with what had happened to them —  and whom she fearlessly and purposely brings back to life through uncovering and giving voice to their secrets, secrets that belong not only to them, but to all of humanity. In doing so, Julia uncovers and admits her own secrets, and looks deeply in to the places where her own life is most at risk, bringing everything in to the light and changing herself and those who know her profoundly.

Beauty Take-Away: This novel really brings the inherent dignity of the human being into sharp focus against others who have total disregard for this dignity. One view is beautiful and divine; the other is dark and devolves into the utter blackness of despair. It is not an easy novel to read — there are times when it is excruciatingly painful to go on to the next sentence. But the imminitable dignity, beauty, and gift of human life is present on every page. Ultimately it is a novel of hope and faith and a belief in God. De Rosnay weaves a story of life out of the ruins of the culture of death. This is a rare occurrence in mainstream fiction today and it is what makes Sarah’s Key so worth reading.

About the film: Read the book first. As in all cases, the book is better. The film is not unsuccessful, but it fails to reach the depth of insight the book accomplishes and glosses over some of the major conflicts that weigh so heavily in the development of Julia’s character in the novel.