Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Last week I was glancing through a book of Norse Mythology and remembered the sad story of Baldur, the beloved light-bearing god. When Baldur’s mother Frigg hears a prophecy of his death, she makes every object in the universe promise not to harm him. “She took an oath from fire and from water, from iron and from all metals, from earths and stones and great trees, from birds and beasts and creeping things, from poisons and diseases.” The evil god Loki, however, finds out that she has neglected one thing: the harmless-seeming mistletoe. While the gods are enjoying Baldur’s new invincibility, throwing every weapon they can find at him and watching it bounce off, Loki tricks one of them into throwing the mistletoe at Baldur, and he dies. The guardian of the underworld agrees to let him back into the land of the living if the gods can really prove that he is as beloved and universally mourned as they say; so Frigg again visits every creature, and every creature sheds a tear for Baldur. (Every creature but one. You can read the full story here.)

This time around I was struck by the anthropomorphization of inanimate things: fire, water, metal, stone, and so on. This seemed different to me than the kind of sentimental worldview that treats pets like people. The elements are only alive in relation to the gods; Baldur’s goodness and beauty is so powerful that even inanimate things respond to it. The implication is not that earthly creatures are as worthy as humans in themselves, but that they are raised to a higher level by contact with the gods.

Then on Sunday, we sang a hymn based on St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, which refers to creatures like fire, water, and wind as our brothers and sisters. Suddenly I realized that Christians also have a tradition of anthropomorphizing creatures. The Canticle of Daniel (Daniel 3:52-57) doesn’t just bless God through or for his creatures, as St. Francis’ canticle does; it actually tells the creatures themselves to bless the Lord.

Sun and moon, bless the Lord…
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.

We don’t believe, like pagans, that the sun and the moon really have consciousness and will; but in some mysterious way we believe that the presence of the Lord is enough to give life even to inanimate things. The prophet Isaiah says that “the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), and Psalm 114 says that when Israel left Egypt “the mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs.” Obviously, there’s some poetic license here; but I think it’s more than that. The presence of God doesn’t just metaphorically bring life; it actually animates the inanimate, as it animates the dead. The difference between this and an animist or pagan worldview is that animals and inanimate objects don’t have life in themselves; they only have life in relation to God. The life is all God’s, and it is so powerful and superabundant that it animates everything around it. And just as the presence of God evokes joy and praise from all creation, the death of God on the cross evoked sorrow: the curtain of the temple ripped, and the sky was darkened. Just as the material world wept for Baldur, it wept for Jesus.

What do you think? Am I way off the mark? I love this vision of creation. I feel like it takes all the beauty of pagan mythology and gives it deeper meaning through the truth of Christianity.

picture from The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, found here 

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Memories of Father George

Two weeks ago, my fourth child was baptized by Father George Majka, the priest who married me and my husband. After the baptism he hurried off to pack for his yearly vacation–his one luxury, as far as I can tell, and a much-deserved one. He flew to the Dominican Republic, where he went scuba diving and drowned.

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As my husband commented, he was just moving on to his eternal vacation, that place of “light and refreshment” he had earned by over thirty years of sacrifice as a priest. I was also reminded of what my father said when Mother Teresa died: bad news for us, but good news for her. I’m very happy for Father George, and I’m convinced he’s in heaven already, and his body is whole again and he’s free from his suffering.

Father George was in terrible health. He was a very large man with breathing problems, and he had to stop and rest after climbing just a few stairs. You could see what a great effort it was for him to make it through the Mass. In spite of this, he never took shortcuts. He gave beautiful sermons every week, sang every hymn, and only sat down to deliver his sermon once that I can remember. I remember being heavily pregnant in the heat of the summer and often sitting down in the pew to rest, but feeling ashamed when I noticed that Father George never took the easy way out: he said each Mass reverently and thoughtfully, on his feet, even though it was obviously difficult for him to even stand.

Father George loved singing. His regular speaking voice was a bit high and unimpressive, but when he sang, a deep and powerful voice took over. He sung the hymns like he meant them, and you could tell he enjoyed them–you could always hear him whistling them after Mass. He had a unique way of picking hymns: he picked whatever directly corresponded to one of the readings, especially if it had a direct quote from the Bible passage. This led to a lot of weird hymns being selected, but it really drove in the theme of the readings. He would even cherry-pick verses: “We will sing hymn number 405, verses 1, 3, and 5.” When we picked “Alleluia, Alleluia, Let the Holy Anthem Rise” for one of our wedding hymns, he requested that we skip the second verse, which “doesn’t really do anything for me. But the third verse really sends me!”

Rest in peace, Father, and pray for us to be as strong and dedicated as you!

Why Schools Need Real Counselors

Here’s a wonderful story about St. Benedict’s, a boys’ preparatory school in New Jersey where the students–most of them from low-income black or Latino families–have a 98% graduation rate. The monks attribute their success to the fact that they have real counseling services–not just career counselors or academic counselors, but actual psychologists–who help the boys deal with anger management, depression, and lack of a father in their lives.

“The counseling center is critical,” said Father Edwin Leahy, a monk and the school’s headmaster, to the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “I don’t know how people do this work without attending to the kids spirits, psyche and heart. It’s very rare that cognition is the reason for poor academic performance in our experience — frequently it’s emotional distress.”

 

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What a Catholic approach! They’re educating and healing the whole person–not just the mind or the soul, but the brain, the psyche, the emotions. They’re not just assuming that a good education and a good spiritual life will solve all problems. As I have written many times, Catholics often fail to understand that psychological problems can be different than spiritual ones. Prayer can heal, for sure, but we’re more than just souls, and sometimes our minds need healing too. You wouldn’t rely on prayer alone to fix a physical problem; God doesn’t want you to leave your mental problems untreated either. I have seen firsthand, in college, what happens when you take young people with depression or an unhealthy past, expose them to heady ideas and philosophies, and offer nothing but hard academic work and daily Mass to deal with their psychological problems. They go off the deep end.

I recently received a fundraising letter from my alma mater, which emphasized the way that the college defied the trend of hypersensitive “safe spaces” and “microagressions” and instead formed independent and strong men and women. So far so good; but the president of the college lost me when he listed, under the heading of emasculating demands that the ivy league made, “free mental health support.” Opposed to this he listed “daily Mass and sacraments,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Now, it may be mostly the “free” part that the president was balking at; but the fact remains that he considers mental health support a symptom of the entitlement society, rather than a crucial part of care for the whole person. This is a dangerous and foolish way to treat the education of young men and women. May more schools follow the example of St. Benedict’s, and show their students God’s loving care for us–mind, body, and soul.

 

Photo: Boy carrying brother by wyammadison on Flickr (license)

Memory and Marriage

This morning I was praying the Canticle of Zechariah and I misread the line “promised…to remember his holy covenant” as applying to us–instead of God “remembering” his covenant with us, we need to remember it.  It struck me that it works both ways.  I’m not sure exactly what it means for God to metaphorically “remember” us, but it’s urgent for us to remember Him.  The image of God and me remembering the covenant between us reminds me of marriage.  Whenever something goes wrong between spouses, the only way to restart is to recall your vows, the covenant between you.

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Just a quick thought for today!  I have several things I’d like to write about, but we’re in the middle of a move and I haven’t had time.

Mama Church

Speaking of trust, one of my readers pointed out that distrust in medical and government authorities seems to be connected to distrust in religious authority.  I think she’s on to something: the same attitude that leads people to reject medical recommendations just because they come from a big establishment leads people to reject the authority of the Church because they don’t want to accept any ideas that they didn’t arrive at on their own power.  I’m not quite sure that I convinced myself with my last post about governmental authority, but I do know that I love the authority of my mother Catholic Church.

This is something I didn’t realize until recently.  I didn’t really understand what the Church’s motherhood had to do with her laws, and I accepted her authority readily, but never thought of it as an object of affection or love.  Now I do.  I’m extremely grateful for the fact that I don’t have to figure out end-of-life decisions, or the question of when life begins, or who’s a real priest and who’s not, or what exactly is wrong with gay marriage, or what is necessary for salvation, or ANYTHING about sex, all by myself.

Is this because I’m slavish or intellectually lazy?  I don’t think so.  I still try to understand these things as well as I can, when I have the time and energy; and I am still not at peace with all of the Church’s teachings, although I accept them.  But it is such a relief to have a trustworthy authority to fall back on.  I don’t have to be constantly worried that I made the wrong decision, or that I don’t know what to do, or that I just don’t understand enough to make the right choice.  God gave me the comfort of an authority that will never betray or mislead me, that will be there for me until the end of time.  Isn’t that generous?  I can very well imagine if He hadn’t decided to institute the authority of the Church, but it makes perfect sense to me that He did.  It’s a gift.

Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.

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image via Wikimedia Commons

We Would Still be Slaves

My family is privileged to be Jewish, and when I was growing up we celebrated Passover every year on the day before Easter.  My father would lead the service, pausing often to explain how different parts of the Exodus story or of the Passover seder were prefigurements of Christ.  We would spend Holy Week cooking all the ceremonial foods, feast on Saturday, clean up, and go straight to the Easter Vigil, where the readings from Exodus and the description of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb confirmed the direct connection between Passover and Easter.
My father discovered more and more Eucharistic symbols in the Passover ceremony each year: the stripes and piercings on the unleavened matzo (the scourging and piercing of Jesus’ pure body);
the action of wiping blood on the lintel and doorposts (which makes the sign of the cross); the angel of death (the death that entered the world through original sin) who is escaped through the blood of the spotless lamb (the sacrifice of the innocent Jesus on the cross); the redemption from slavery (the slavery of sin and death); and the middle of three matzos (the second person of the Trinity), which is broken and hidden away, and must be recovered and unwrapped in order to finish the celebration with dessert.

A tomb with the stone rolled away, which I saw on a trip to Israel.

I’ve written about my personal response to the litany of gratitude, Dayenuhere.
Here’s something new that just struck me this year.  In Exodus 13:8, when God is commanding the Israelites to celebrate Passover every year, He says: “you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”  The Haggadah (the book of prayers for the Seder ritual) comments: “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had left Egypt. It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed from Egypt; rather, He redeemed us, as it is stated: ‘He brought us out from there, so that He might bring us to the land He promised our fathers, and give it to us.'”  Later on, the Hagaddah makes it even more explicit: “If God had not taken us out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh.”
As a child, I took this literally: I guess it’s possible that I, a descendant of Jewish ancestors, could still be a slave in Egypt.  Later on, I realized that it was meant symbolically.  But now, in light of the coming of Christ, I believe that it actually is literal.  If Jesus hadn’t shed his blood for us, we would still be slaves to sin and death.  When we say that we ourselves were rescued from slavery, we are referring to the power of the Cross that reaches to us across eternity.  Jesus did not offer redemption to just his followers, or just the Jews, or even just the righteous, but to everyone.
Happy Easter!  Tell your children that we celebrate not because of what Jesus did two thousand years ago, but because of what he did for us, today.

Exodus, by Marc Chagall