Because It Allows Me to See Everything Differently, Even “Avatar” in IMAX 3-D

Saturday was a day of contrasts. I ate lunch in Boston’s North End with Z and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). Over pasta with salmon, we discussed CL and its “main instrument,” the School of Community. In the evening, I had a dinner date with my sweetheart: a vegetarian meal on Long Wharf followed by Avatar in IMAX 3-D at the Boston Aquarium. I came home exhausted.

First, about the exhaustion. I had left Z’s North End home invigorated, ambling up Prince Street to my car with renewed appreciation for the charism offered by Father Giussani, founder of CL. Fr. James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, so instrumental in my conversion, notes that Ignatius of Loyola became a priest because of contrasts: He realized that when he read accounts of war, he felt sapped, but when he read Scripture or the lives of the saints, he felt renewed. And so was I renewed, weaving through the Saturday afternoon crowd on Prince Street while looking around for an Italian mother leaning out a second-floor window shouting, “Anthony!”

After the full-metal barrage of the 162-minute Avatar, by contrast, it was all I could do to drive safely home—over the Tobin Bridge, up Route 1, and out onto 128, thinking all the while about the film, trying to “judge my experience,” in the parlance of CL. This is the beautiful thing about Catholicism in general and CL in particular: Together (especially together) they are an invitation to see life through new eyes, though not exactly eyes of the Na’vi. (For the three of you in America who have not seen the film: refer to poster.)

I had a snap reaction to the film: It offers nature worship and romantic love as the highest values, while reveling in technology (those special effects!). Avatar’s idea of crucifixion is being confined to a wheelchair, like the main human character. Its idea of resurrection is for a paralyzed man to lie down in a tomb-like bed of electrodes and come back to life in the body of an ersatz Na’vi, by some sort of electronic mind transfer. Avatar posits an Earth that is dying and a distant planet, Pandora, where there is some sort of vague hope, although in the end that hope comes true for one and only one character, the protagonist. Director James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Titanic”) does not exactly espouse a Catholic world view.

And yet . . . In an effort to “judge” the film, which boils down to looking for the presence of Christ in it, I realized that, for all its pantheism and enthrallment to technology, Avatar’s main character, the protagonist, is motivated by an unquenchable desire. At first, paralyzed from the waist down, he wants only to walk, and a hard-ass army officer has promised him the needed operation if he agrees to use his ersatz Na’vi figure as a sort of undercover elf. (The three of you who haven’t seen the film—are you getting confused yet?) But Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) discovers a deeper desire once he encounters the Na’vi people, and it is that desire that drives the narrative. Without that desire, no story, no humanity—just a lot of special effects and the inevitable climactic megamilitary blow-out, complete with hard-ass officer making like The Terminator for one last showdown.

It is the desire in our hearts for the divine that drives our narrative, that is the most indelible feature of our human nature. That desire is finally satisfied only in one place—not on another planet or through any kind of science-driven “resurrection”—but in Jesus Christ. That’s my take on Avatar—and why I found it not only sense-numbing and exhausting but also compelling.

My friend Z is always full of surprises. Having already worked out this post in my mind, I sent him an e-mail about having seen Avatar. His “judgment” was much more basic and beautiful. Z wrote:

Wonderful Avatar . . . However I just prefer the old movie style where the American army are the good people.

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies V

This is your co-pilot once again.  It is a beautiful afternoon up here in the cockpit.  Cruising now at only 10,000 feet.  We’re safe from small arms fire, but still within range of SAM’s (Surface to Air missles). Oh I don’t want to alarm you or anything, but as we get closer to the end of Lent, the cross-country flight will draw to a close and we’ll be back to flying sorties over enemy territory. Close Air Support, etc. Ten thousand feet is getting down to where Webster and I usually live. We’ll cruise at this altitude next Friday too.

Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, so Webster has ordered Surf and Turf for this evening’s dinner. Yep, New York Strip grilled to order (don’t ask how we pulled that off) and grilled gumbo shrimp to boot. That will go well behind that Cheeseburger and Cherry Coke lunch we had up here in the cockpit. Caesar salad and your favorite beverages will be on the side.

And for our in-flight entertainment? Becket starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in this fully restored masterpiece. Ever had a buddy who was an enabler, you know, aided and abetted your carousing, etc? If you were King of England, wouldn’t it be cool to appoint your pal the Archbishop of Canterbury? Think of the wacky stunts you could pull if your confessor was your best buddy! That’s what Henry II thought when he appointed Becket as Archbishop. A stunning story of “be careful what you wish for” from both sides of the friendship spectrum.

Enjoy the show, and thanks again for flying with us!

P.S. I Think you can watch the whole thing at You Tube.

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YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity,” Week 9

This week we read Book IV, Chapters 9,10, and 11.

Can you hear Barry Manilow sing Looks like we made it? Are you turning cartwheels or heaving a sigh of relief? Show of hands: How many of you actually stuck it out and read the whole thing? On second thought, don’t answer that. Don’t worry about it either, because you could get away with reading just Book IV of Mere Christianity and come away with a new appreciation for the path you have chosen.

If nothing else, this last section of Jack’s book will cause you to pause and reflect on the enormity of the task that lies ahead as you walk this narrow path to salvation. In chapter 9 Jack discusses frankly the “be careful what you wish for” aspect of Christianity.

Did you think you just had a few things to work on, and then all would be well? Jack reminds us that  Our Lord says to each of us, “Be perfect.” And that means trusting in Him and enduring all manner of trials as you are undergoing the transformation to perfection. And Jack doesn’t sugar coat it for us either.  Making the change will kill you. Yes, you will become perfect and die trying. 

Tempted to throw in the towel? You can count on that temptation. Expecting consolations in this world? Don’t count on that one. Take heart, fellow sojourner—

When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected), he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along-illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation-he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.

Do you think being a Christian is all about being nice? In Chapter 10 Jack does his level best to disavow you of that namby-pamby notion, too. I’m just a regular guy, but I don’t think you would classify me as a really, really nice guy. Ugh! I’m a Marine, for crying out loud! And I’m a Christian. I can’t speak to your experience, but I think many men have just turned off to Christianity because of the attempt to wedge their square selves into the round hole of nicety.

Jack comes up with some solid arguments to the contrary here. We are becoming new people when we become Christians. For cradle Catholics, you still have to go through this transformation just like us converts. Because as you see here, Jack acknowledges the brutal fact that the change isn’t necessarily a rapid one. And what of the conundrum of the not-so-nice Christian and the very nice non-Christian? Jack tackles that question with alacrity via an analogy a land-navigating Marine like me loves: that of the compass combined with free-will,

Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfill the only purpose for which they were created? Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God? He can help it to do so.  He cannot force it.

Not that niceness, on the whole, isn’t to be encouraged. But as Jack explains, remember that Christ came to save the sick and the poor and those most in need of redemption.  The trick is, of course, that this means all of us! For,

God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.

And Jack explains that this is a transformative experience, not unlike turning a horse into a totally different creature with wings. And now to the final chapter, The New Men.

Chapter 12 begins with an idea that lays to rest any fear that science and reason are incompatible with Christianity. The Theory of Evolution? Heck, as Catholics you should know that as far as the Church is concerned, the theory has validity. Jack agrees, and what thinking person doesn’t? And as Jack reports, the next evolutionary step made its appearance over 2000 years ago. Not by evolution will the next step arrive, but by revolution—

It is not a change from brainy men to brainier men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction-a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God.

And daughters too.  It is almost impossible for me to comment on this last chapter because Jack weaves pretty much all of the concepts from the entire book into this final one. I like how Jack portrays the Christian world as one that is still in its infancy. 2000 years old? A mere blink of the eye. Much more work for us to do so stop focusing on the “end times” and start working on the transformation. Which brings us to this thought (and proof) that insure this book remains a timeless classic:

The present wicked and wasteful divisions between us are, let us hope, a disease of infancy: we are still teething. The outer world, no doubt, thinks just the opposite. It thinks we are dying of old age. But it has drought that so often before! Again and again it has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without or corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism, the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense-and I quite realize how frightfully unfair it must seem to them-that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.

It’s hard to keep a good man down, and impossible to keep the Son of Man or His Church down. I’ll wrap this up and turn it over to you and the comment box with one last thought of Jack’s,

The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of “little Christs,” all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented-as an author invents characters in a novel-all the different men that you and I were intended to be.

After all, this is the message of Divine Mercy: Jesus, I Trust In You.  Lord, give me the strength to let go of the reins.

Announcement:

The YIMC Book Club will now go on hiatus. We’ll be back sometime after Easter for our next selection, Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

“A Prayer for My Daughter” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so we’d best pick an Irish poet for this regular feature—or else I’ll be in Dutch with my Irish wife, the erstwhile Katie McNiff. Yeats or Wilde? That was my question. Oscar Wilde, for all his flamboyance, had a deeply spiritual side. (Read his “De Profundis” some day when you feel that God is far away.) But with one daughter of mine being received into the Catholic Church at Easter and the other embarked on an exciting new career path, I have to go with William Butler Yeats (left) and his beautiful prayer for his own daughter. St. Joseph would have understood:

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

YIMC Book Club Roll Call—Final Exam is Thursday

Wow, around the New Year I said this about C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity:

He better be bringing his “Little Deuce Coupe.”

And he has. Or maybe it’s more like an Aston Martin Vantage V-8.  Whatever he’s driving, Jack has been proving something that Chuck Yeager said regarding pilots and aircraft.  Which is more important Chuck?

It’s the man, not the machine. Wait a second, lets see the whole enchilada:

I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world—British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese—and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact: the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.

So, remember the honeymoon, guys? When C.S. Lewis won the book selection vote by a nose? Here are some quotes to refresh your memory,

Eighty-nine book club votes and counting—can we count on so-many contributions about the segments of the book when we begin club reading-n-reflecting in earnest?

Um, evidently NOT! Roll tape!

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Excuse me Tommy, did you say bunch of babies?! LOL, I thought so.

Prayers were answered with this book club selection?

Oh, thank you! I came down to my computer this morning to a note from my son, saying he wanted to discuss Mere Christianity with me. He’s 21, and searching for God’s place in his life. So my prayer was answered…

Roll tape!

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I agree! Get outta the tree, people (Cubs fans—sheesh)! We’ve only got one more meeting to go folks, and like Webster and I have been saying, Jack saved his best stuff for last. He’s driving his Lola-Cosworth at break-neck speeds and setting track records and living to tell about it.

Roll tape!

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Yeah, Jack looks good in British Racing Green, and heck, maybe it’s Irish green. Either way, he is flying toward the finish line this week and so are we. Did you see him pass that guy like he was standing still? Was that you?

Roll Call:

EPG
Warren Jewell
Mary P
Matthew
Webster (say it ain’t so Mav!)
Michelle
Janet
El Bollio Tejano
Sandy
Anonymous(?!)
Turgonian

Not exactly 89!, LOL. After all, this film ending is more like it.  Roll tape!

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Sometimes you just have to switch to manual. See you all Thursday (and leave your Blue books and Scantrons at home!).

Introducing Ollabelle (Music for Mondays)

Since hearing them last year on Pandora Radio, I have been a big fan of the largely invisible musical quintet “Ollabelle.” Here’s their Wikipedia page, which has about as much info as I’ve found anywhere. The notable member, perhaps, is Amy Helm, daughter of The Band drummer Levon Helm, though I’m not really a music junkie, so Glenn Patscha, Byron Isaac, Fiona McBain, or even Tony Leone may be somehow more important. Anyway, what is it with these people? There’s nothing overtly Evangelical, and certainly nothing Catholic, about their story, but tell me they aren’t “religious”!

Sorry in advance for the poor video quality, but these people have been flying under the radar—

What could be more Lenten than a song called “Get Back Temptation”?

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Do you have “Jesus on the Main Line”? Ollabelle does.

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Listen to this cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Soul of a Man” (with a momentary change of scene) and tell me these people don’t know something about the Holy Spirit.

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And how about my favorite Ollabelle tune, “Down by the Riverside,” one of the great Negro Spirituals?

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Let’s finish with a “band of angels” in “Gone Today,” taking Ollabelle to heaven, where I say they belong.

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For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies IV

This is your trusty co-pilot checking in again. We are continuing our slow descent and are currently at 17,000 feet with good visibility, but with reports of some heavy weather up ahead. So for your safety, please keep your seat belt fastened when you aren’t moving about the cabin. [Read more...]

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity” Week 8

This week we read Book IV, Chapters 6, 7, and 8.
I have a close friend who suggested to me to give you lubberly book club members questions to help motivate you to read and comment on CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity. To which I say, Phooey on that! Maybe you guys all finished the book three weeks ago and didn’t tell me about it. Jimmy-crack-corn and-I don’t-care!

Oh, what’s that? You don’t know what lubberly means? Look it up, lazy bones. Because here’s the thing: if you quit reading or you’ve gotten side-tracked, or you just don’t understand what CSL is saying, that’s not my fault. And it’s your loss too, because Jack has been saving the best for last.

Much like last week, I’ll skip the chapter by chapter grind and leave the majority of comments up to you. That didn’t work really well last time but so be it. Interestingly, Jack issues a wake-up call this week and quite frankly we all need to hear it. I wrote a post last week on the difficulties of walking The Way. Jack backs me up this week but also clarifies something. The Way is hard and easy. But before we tackle that concept, look what Jack says here:

Teachers will tell you that the laziest boy in the class is the one who works hardest in the end. They mean this. If you give two boys, say, a proposition in geometry to do, the one who is prepared to take trouble will try to understand it. The lazy boy will try to learn it by heart because, for the moment, that needs less effort. But six months later, when they are preparing for an exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes. Laziness means more work in the long run.

Lots of great stuff like that from Jack this week. He discusses why we were given free will by God. Sure, it’s a two-edged sword, but it’s better than being a slave or a robot. Want to make everybody into a little you? Jack talks about why that is a bad idea, and why it isn’t Gods plan. Tempted not to give a hoot about anyone but yourself? Sure you are, but Jack sheds light on why that is no solution either. For practical application of this, see Webster’s post on Anna Deveare Smith.

Jack’s writings in these chapters force you to look deep inside at the real you. Courage, me hearties! Are you an Individualist, a Totalitarian, or somewhere in between?  And

What difference does all this theology make? It can start making a difference tonight. If you are interested enough to have read thus far you are probably interested enough to make a shot at saying your prayers: and, whatever else you say, you will probably say the Lord’s Prayer.

The fact that Jesus taught us to pray by first saying the words Our Father should astound you from reading Mere Christianity this far, if it didn’t amaze you already. You may or may not know that this alone, calling God Father, is impossible for Muslims, for example.

Have you ever heard the expression fake it until you make it? Jack endorses this as a way to begin the process of transforming ourselves into the new person we must become to be Christians. Now we are getting to the hard and the easy I alluded to earlier. Jack even flips this on its head by claiming that maybe God is the one doing the pretending:

The Three-Personal God, so to speak, sees before Him in fact a self-centered, greedy, grumbling, rebellious human animal. But He says, “Let us pretend that this is not a mere creature, but our Son. It is like Christ in so far as it is a Man, for He became Man. Let us pretend that it is also like Him in Spirit. Let us treat it as if it were what in fact it is not. Let us pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality.”

Golly, looking in the mirror like that makes me wince. How’s that for shaking up your world view? I was bantering with Webster via e-mail the other day about an upcoming post, and I said something that prompted him to respond that he is glad he isn’t married to a Marine. I sent him back this from Jack with the reply of “Yeah, look what you’ve married into now”—

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked-the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

I think I’ve said before that, for me anyway, the Marine Corps was a cake-walk compared to being a Christian. Jack summed it up nicely here, don’t you think? You really can’t continue on as you were before. And in case you think you can, I’ll leave you to ponder how Our Lord considers the lukewarm.

Your thoughts on this week’s readings (and even the previous weeks’—sheesh!) in the comment box are appreciated.

Next week, we finish by reading Book IV, Chapters 9, 10, and 11.

“Two Tramps in Mudtime” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

In an endless quest to simplify blogging while staying true to the mission of this space—to proclaim the joy of being Catholic—here’s a new weekly feature: poems, not necessarily Catholic, that have inspired us in our spiritual journey. Father Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, was a great one for seeing the Mystery in artistic creation. So call this column a tribute to his insight.

We’re moving into “mud time” here in New England, and I can’t think of a better first selection than Robert Frost’s great poem about a man splitting wood during the spring thaw. A poet could work a whole lifetime and not write a better final stanza. 

What’s Catholic about this poem? It combines physicality with spirituality. This is life—the raw effort of wielding the ax while one’s heart reaches for Heaven—“vocation” in harmony with “avocation.” It’s the same dynamic found in Frost’s other beautiful up-high/down-low poem, “Birches.” Which I’m sure I’ll get to one of these Wednesdays.

One good thing about “Two Tramps” and most of Frost—I don’t feel like an idiot reading it but not understanding it. The meaning and beauty are all right there, in the daily specifics of New England life.

TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Because Breast is Best (in honor of International Women’s Day)

Guest post by Allison
Quick: Who said this about breastfeeding? “Mothers need time, information and support. So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breast-feeding and early care is not always available.” The answer: Pope John Paul II.

Most of us don’t expect a priest, much less a pope, to be weighing in on breastfeeding. But the late Pontiff made a compelling case in a 1995 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Britain:

In normal circumstances these (advantages of breastfeeding for mother and child) include two major benefits to the child: protection against disease and proper nourishment. Moreover, in addition to these immunological and nutritional effects, this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through interaction with the mother.

After I married, I decided to breastfeed any children I would bear. My mom, born in the 1930s, was part of a generation of American women discouraged by physicians from breastfeeding. To give a sense of the prevailing attitude of those times, one friend’s mom asked her obstetrician about breastfeeding. He told her, “Breastfeeding is for peasants.”

My mom became pregnant six times in seven years, and told me she loved breastfeeding her oldest child for a couple of months and regretted she had not had support to continue with my oldest brother and her subsequent babies.

Pope John Paul II rightly traced the decline of breastfeeding to “a combination of social factors, such as urbanization and the increasing demands placed on women, to healthcare policies and practices, and to marketing strategies for alternate forms of nourishment.”

Before I had babies, I read up on breastfeeding in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. One of its authors is Edwina Froehlich, co-founder of La Leche League International, the breastfeeding advocacy group that provides education and support to mothers. It didn’t surprise me to learn Froehlich was a devout Catholic, as were all the women in that first La Leche Group. Even the organization’s name has Catholic roots. The group had been intrigued by the first Marian shrine in North America, dedicated in 1598 by Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida. It is called Nuestra Senora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk) (left).

Breastfeeding did not come easily to me. In September 1996, during the early hours of our first son’s life, I eagerly awaited for him to “latch on” and begin nursing. After a few false starts, I thought we both had figured it out. Imagine my terror as I held Gabriel in my arms to feed him and he turned purple and stiff and stopped breathing. I called for the nurse, assuming our baby had just died.

As it turned out, Gabriel was having a seizure, the first of several in his early months. The purple color was vasoconstriction, not a sign of death. (Of course, the breastfeeding had nothing to do with the seizures.) Gabriel spent his first eight days in the neonatal intensive care unit of Saint Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, while neonatologists tried to sort out what was wrong with him. Did he have a cerebellum? Did he have anatomical brain damage? Brain bruising? Mental retardation?

With our son attached to feeding tubes and breathing monitors, I could not breastfeed; I could not hold him; I could not take him home. In fact, neither we nor the physicians knew if he would come home at all.

Thank God the nurses at this Catholic hospital immediately encouraged me to pump my own breast milk. They sent my tiny bags of expressed milk via a pneumatic tube from my hospital room to the neonatal unit, where they were put into his feeding tubes, along with infant formula.

When I returned home from maternity ward, I pumped breast milk every four hours, including through the night, so that I would be ready to nurse our baby when he was ready. This enabled me to nurture Gabriel even while he was in neonatal intensive care.

Throughout this ordeal, it was reassuring to know that my Church “got it”—understood my efforts meant I could nurture our infant. I was able to nurse Gabriel when he did come home—medicated and with a diagnosis of Benign Transient Neonatal Seizure Disorder. (In other words, these benign seizures had no known cause.)

This experience made it clear to me that God designed women’s bodies so we could bear children. What a blessing my body fed my unborn child and through breastfeeding, the son I had just delivered into the world.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: “Motherhood implies from the beginning [from creation] a special openness to the new person. . . . In this openness . . . the woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.”


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