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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?

Our Lady of Sorrows

“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:34-35)

O Mary . . . a terrible sword has pierced your holy soul. Except for God, no one knows of your suffering. Your soul does not break; it is brave, because it is with Jesus.  Sweet Mother, unite my soul to Jesus, because it is only then that I will be able to endure all trials and tribulations, and only in union with Jesus will my sacrifices be pleasing to God. Sweetest Mother, continue to teach me about the interior life. May the sword of suffering never break me. O pure Virgin, pour courage into my heart and guard it. –Prayer of St. Faustina to the Sorrowful Mother (Diary 915)

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”

Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993

 

Beauty, Grace, the Big Screen — a follow-up….

After reading this post, my friend, Rose, reminded me about Holy Wood Acting Studio, here in Culver City, CA. Its a new acting studio, dedicated to helping actors fulfill their mission to be true artists and servants of Truth and Beauty in the world. If you know anyone who is interested in acting, or if you are at all interested in the power of film as an art form, the studio is worth looking in to. Be sure and watch the introductory video that comes on before you click on the link to enter the site. Its only about a minute and a half and it is very inspiring.

The mission of the studio was recently written about on the National Catholic Register website by Joseph Pronchen, which he followed up in print with a longer article.  The article gives a clear idea of the goals of the studio and articulates the important role of film in accomplishing the goal of all art, which our late holy father, Blessed John Paul II, said “is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.”

Hoping and praying many good film projects, and good people, will be coming out of this studio in the future….

“Remember that you, artists, are the custodians of Beauty in the world.” — Blessed John Paul II, Letter to Artists

A Total Loss?

When I was a little girl, I suppose I enjoyed school. I have a lot of memories and none of them are particularly horrible, though there are some I’d rather forget. I don’t remember getting in trouble too often — mostly I was disciplined for being, as one teacher I dearly loved put it, “too loquacious,” which you can read as “talkative.”

Nothing was ever too terribly difficult — except for math, which was maddening and frightened me generally because I am very slow about some things and often need time to think and so could not keep up with the pace of learning new concepts. I liked reading ever so much more, because I had time to think and process. And if I didn’t quite get something right off, well, then I could go back and read it again,. And I could ponder things while I read and have the leisure to make connections and think about them and see things along a sort of continuum, I suppose. This was the same whether I was reading for history, or science, or just a book of literature. And then, unlike math where there was ever only one right answer, words could mean different things just by the way they were used or punctuated in a sentence, and a single word could evoke an entire picture or even a story in one’s mind that, for me, numbers and their sentence-like equations simply failed to do. I think after all I probably enjoyed school because it was so very word-based. I love words and language and was an accomplished speller and writer all through my elementary and high school years. It’s probably no surprise then that I became an English and writing teacher.

One thing I remember loving about school is the Read-a-thon. These were randomly infrequent occurrences during the glory days of the RIF literacy movement where we were given practically the entire day to read a book of our choice! Now, was it the entire day, or just a portion of it? Who knows! To any child under the age of 18, the school day in its entirety seems interminable and time is an illusion. For all I know, we were only given an hour after lunch — but in my mind, I remember being given hours to just sit quietly and read, in school! No tests, no math worksheets, so spelling book pages……just the bliss of getting lost in whatever book I happened to be in love with at the moment. I used to anticipate these days with great eagerness. Our teacher reminded us repeatedly beforehand not to forget to bring our books for the read-a-thon. I seem to remember we had to run the book by her first — it had to be a real book, not a magazine or a comic book, but something with a story that would demand our sustained attention over a period of time. Beyond that, whatever we chose was up to us. I remember being excited and thrilled. We were in school and we were reading all day and it was OK with the teacher. We were free. Amazing…..

Which brings me to today.

Skippy and I were both nursing a serious fatigue hang-over after an incredibly busy and active weekend. On top of that, I had to work this morning. Typically on days when I work, Skippy gets a schedule with all of the school work he can do independently and we both just work quietly on our own. Once I’m finished with my project, then he and I will spend the afternoon doing the things I need to “teach” him. But today didn’t quite work out like that. Both of us were wrangling with brain fog and drowsiness. He made a valiant attempt at his list, but then quickly moved to the two items that demanded the least amount of “effort” — his reading assignments. Before you knew it, we were in full read-a-thon mode. He was throughly engrossed in his books and just didn’t want to stop reading. When his timer went off after the first assignment (he reads each book 10-15 minutes a day), he came to me and said “My St. Thomas book is getting really good. I don’t want to stop reading. I wish I could have more time.” I thought for a minute and wondered, “Well, why not? Yes, he does have more work to do, but he’s really engaged…..what to do?” The teacher in me has two voices: the one who feels like I have a Big Brother Principal-Administrator constantly looking over my shoulder was running through the list and thinking how behind we’d be if I gave him more time; the other was thrilled that he had found such “friends” in his books and wanted nothing other to encourage that interest and give him the time he was asking for.

I gave him the time……

By the time we dropped off my project and came home for lunch, he was more than half-way through the novel he had started for his literature reading and was sharing plot points and character descriptions excitedly with me while we drove in the car. I told him he could have a “reading day” if he finished his spelling, grammar, and piano after lunch. I was prepared to let the rest of his “core subjects” go for the day if he would be reading.

So was the day a total loss? Viewed through the eyes of the current assessment-driven education culture, my son didn’t “produce” a single thing today, didn’t offer up a quantitative test score that could be used to measure him against other kids in the district or the state, didn’t write anything that could be used to assess his understanding of any given time period in history or any particular character in said period. And as a teacher, I well know those things are important — but there is a time and a place for them, and today was neither the time nor the place for that kind of work.

Today while reading my son learned: what it means to be a virtuous man who stands up for what he believes in, even when someone in power tries to make him do otherwise; the importance of faith and family in one’s life; what it means to listen carefully in order to discern God’s will for each person; and what it costs to stand up for what you believe in. In addition, he learned a lot about pre-Reformation England, Parliament, and King Henry VIII — all this from reading a historical novel about St. Thomas More. Today while reading, my son also learned: about the behaviors and traits of various types of owls; that sometimes even the closest members of one’s own family don’t tell the truth; that sometimes one has to leave everything one knows and loves to find out that truth; that history can be “changed” when facts are misrepresented or are missing entirely and that these errors have an impact on succeeding generations; that each individual is given a gift and something that makes them uniquely themselves and that they have a choice not only as to how to use that gift but whether to use it at all — all this from reading book 7 in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series.  Today while reading my son also learned new vocabulary, the importance of character, pacing and organization within a story, and how to devote sustained, concentrated attention to the task at hand. He challenged his memory and practiced storytelling, paraphrasing, and inference by narrating back to me the events of the books he was reading (an often better tool for assessment than the standard uninspired book report kids are required to churn out). And let’s not forget the connections he has made between both of these books and the medieval period in British history that we are studying — because of events in the St. Thomas book the occur between the king and Parliament, he better understands the way early England was governed; and because of the way the owl communities are formed in Ga’Hoole, he has a better understanding of the early craftsmen’s guilds in Europe. Not bad for a day that didn’t include the regular school “formula.”

In these fast-paced, technologically frenzied days, there is something to be said for “learning” how to slow down, pay attention, and get lost in whatever book you happen to love at the moment.

Triduum, Day 2

Christ Crucified

File:Cristo crucificado.jpg

“…[H]e said, ‘It is finished.’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” John 19: 30

Pieta

 Mary, the Mother of God, receiving the dead body of Jesus Christ your Son taken down from the cross and laid in your arms, receive us, to whom He had given His life, and lay us with Him upon your sinless heart.

We are sinners, but save us from despondency and despair: Save us from the morbidity which kills the soul. Save us from dwelling on the past. Take our heads into your hands and turn them gently to look upon the light of God. Let us feel the warmth and radiance of that healing sun, although we are still too weak to bear the blaze of its glory.

By the dead body of Christ laid in your arms, save us from the death of sin. Ask our Heavenly Father, whose will is your will, to restore us to life, to Christ’s life in our souls, so that in each one of us you may see your only child, the Child Jesus, and give us the heaven of your tender love.

By the passion and death of your only Son, give us His life. Make us new,give us the trust of children, give us the childhood of Christ. Grant to us, Virgin Mother, a new heaven and a new earth, because we see with His eyes, hear with His ears, work with His hands, walk on His feet, trust with His trust in His Heavenly Father, and love with His heart.

— Caryll Houselander