Because You Can See Christ in Anyone

Anna Deveare Smith is an extraordinary actress, teacher, woman. Katie and I had an opportunity to appreciate that last evening at a private command performance put on by a client of mine. I do not know whether the long-time performer on West Wing is a Catholic. But she taught me about being a Catholic, and challenged me to be a better one.

Trained as an actress, Smith is a former winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and is now a professor at NYU. She has created a new form of one-woman show, in which she presents a broad range of American characters as she has encountered them in one-on-one interviews. In the YouTube clip below, you can appreciate her acting talent. But what you might not realize is that each small performance piece is taken verbatim from an interview she conducted.

This makes her performance an extraodinary act of incarnating another person—often someone of another culture, sometimes a person of the opposite gender (she plays Studs Terkel in the first piece). She incarnates these characters with complete acceptance and boundless compassion. She never makes fun of her characters; she embodies them completely.

I have been thinking about her performance since it ended last night. I have been wondering why I have been thinking about her performance. And this is the conclusion I have come to.

Anna Deveare Smith demonstrates how it is possible to see beauty, truth, and goodness in anyone. And she has made this seeing and telling her life’s work. Seeing another person this way, I imagine, I am about as close to seeing Christ in that person as I would be face to face with Jesus. Watch, listen, ponder the meaning of this remarkable woman’s work.

Language warning: If you are going to watch this with a young person, turn it off after the piece about the Korean woman. Because the final character, a rodeo rider, uses the F-word. To my mind, even this “lapse of taste” (if that is really what it is) is an act of total acceptance of a character encountered.

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“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 Catholics Can Take a Joke

Guest post by Allison Salerno
Know any good, tasteful Catholic jokes? On Sunday, the fourth in Lent, our Church will celebrate Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. Among the signs of joy you may see at your local parish this Sunday are: the use of flowers on the altar, and of the organ at Mass and Vespers. You will also see your priests robed in rose-colored vestments. One parish friend suggests we think of Laetare Sunday  as “halftime for Lent,” a chance for us to pause and feel joy during our Lenten Journey. How wise our Church and its liturgical calendar are!

Inspired by reader Michelle, who emailed Webster a very funny joke, we will post  some Catholic jokes on Sunday afternoon—all in good taste and respectful of our Church because Catholics do have a sense of humor. Just check out the photo (above) of Sister Rosalba Garcia, one of the twenty-three nuns of the Salesian Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province in San Antonio.

Because Webster and Frank don’t know a whole lot of Catholic jokes (they seem to have little sense of humor), and I know few jokes of any denomination, we need your help. Send your suggestions to me: allisonsalerno@optimum.net and I will compile a list. Looking forward to some giggles.

Here’s a little more about Laetare Sunday from my friend, who says he “plagiarized shamelessly and paraphrased from the Catholic Encyclopædia”:

“Strictly speaking, the Thursday before Laetare Sunday is the middle day of Lent, and it was at one time observed as such, but afterwards the special signs of joy permitted on this day, intended to encourage the faithful in their course through the season of penance, were transferred to the Sunday following. The fourth, or middle, Sunday of Lent, gets its name from the first words of the Introit at Mass, “Laetare Jerusalem’—‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem.’”

Because of The Stations of the Cross

One of the dreams my wife and I have is to go on a tour of the Holy Land. We want to make a pilgrimage there and see the sights and holy places where the greatest story ever told took place. That is a trip we are really looking forward to.

There are many sites outside of the Holy Land to make a pilgrimage to as well. Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe come to mind. So many places, so little time, and dare I say it, so little cash. But there is a way to go to the Holy Land this week right in your local parish. [Read more...]

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.”

A Dirty Little Secret (Music for Mondays)

I have a confession to make, a secret to make a Catholic blush. It’s not about what I watch or say or do, it’s about what I listen to. Sometimes! Just sometimes! When I’m out walking and I have Pandora Radio on my iPhone and have my ear buds plugged in, I listen to a wide variety of music. I have a station called Stile Antico Radio (mostly 16th-century polyphony, very Catholic). I have another called Folky Stuff (self-explanatory) and another named for my favorite guitarist, Knopfler Radio. So I listen according to mood. My dark secret?

I also have a station called David Crowder Radio. For those unfamiliar with the man (pictured here), he’s an evangelical Jesus Rocker. OK, there it is, my secret’s out: I really dig loud, soaring Christian Rock. Now, don’t all jump ship at once.

It’s Monday, so open your hearts and let me give you a taste, but beware: It’s habit-forming and pretty soon you’ll be using valuable confession time telling the priest about the sinful joys of Hillsong United, Darlene Zschech, and Third Day.

Let’s kick off this MFM segment with a quiet start from Casting Crowns and “Praise You in This Storm.”

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Let’s kick it up a notch with David Crowder live, singing “Oh Praise Him!”

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Before the big finish, let’s hear from Third Day, with “God of Wonders.”

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Time to put your hands in the air, brothers and sisters! It’s time for music from Australia’s biggest megachurch, Hillsong United. The song is “Hosanna!” C’mon, Catholics, you can say “Hosanna!”

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For just one night before I die, I want to be crazy enough to go crazy in one of these arenas when Darlene Zschech, Hillsong’s diva, sings “How Great is Our God!” Hold me down, brothers and sisters!

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Now you can take me home, Lord, now you can take me home!

An Anglican Asks: Do Catholics Go Overboard with Mary?

Last week I asked EPG, an Anglican reader of this blog, to pose some questions for Catholics, to provide a forum for discussion. I gather that these questions represent reasons why he, and others, are not (yet) Catholic. His first question concerns what may be the biggest stumbling block: the role of Mary in Catholic worship. Listen carefully, answer respectfully. I will put in my two cents after citing his question verbatim:

I have some concerns about the extent of Marian devotion. I can understand devotion to Mary in the context of the communion of saints. Asking Mary (or any of the saints) to intercede would be analogous to asking a good friend, an older brother, or one’s mother for prayers on one’s behalf. I am perfectly comfortable with the respect and even veneration for Mary arising from her actions, from her first assent at the Annunciation, and from that time on. I have no issue with the titles “Theotokos,” or “Mother of God.”

But there does seem to be a point at which the partisans of Mary go overboard, and attempt to direct our attention to her, in place of Christ. For example, I find myself deeply uncomfortable with the thought of considering Mary as co-Redemptrix. See, for example, this blog.  The author is a former Episcopal priest, who has apparently been accepted into the Catholic priesthood. Is he an exception, or in the Catholic mainstream?

And there is a radio program (played on our local Catholic station, and syndicated widely) that seems to go overboard in its emphasis on Mary.

So how do all of you respond to Mary in your lives as Catholics? Are there areas in which you see excesses in Marian devotion. (I could throw out that fine old epithet “Mariolatry.”) Or, coming from an Anglican Protestant background, am I missing something? If so, what?

EPG, I can’t give you formal Catholic apologetics on this one. But I’ll pass this post on to Ferde, because I know he can.

What I can give you is my experience. Among Catholics I know, I do not see an extreme emphasis on Mary, and I never hear talk of her as co-Redemptrix. (Oh, there was some rumbling about it in our men’s group one day, but we rumble about everything.) But just as I was drawn to the Catholic Church by the example of the saints, who were never reverenced or even referenced in the Episcopal parish of my youth, I have friends, including Mitch, who say they were brought to the Catholic Church by the Blessed Mother.

When I first started coming to daily Mass, I didn’t have much feeling for Jesus. Who was he exactly? I thought only of God—like a good Unitarian, I suppose! But now, through readings, Father Barnes’s homilies, daily reception of the Eucharist, Eucharistic Adoration, and, notably, I think, my participation in Communion and Liberation, I recognize Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I seek a deeper relationship with him.

Mary? Except during Lent, Saturday morning Masses at our church are usually dedicated to the Blessed Virgin (as the church itself is dedicated to Mary in one of her many roles, “Star of the Sea”). Two candles are lit on Mary’s altar at the front left of the nave; Father Barnes says a couple of extra prayers; and as a recessional he leads us in “Salve Regina” or another Marian hymn. That’s it. (“Our” Mary illustrates this post.)

Now, it’s my understanding that Father Barnes is a doctrinaire Catholic priest, in the best sense of the term. He is true to the teaching of the Church and faithfully communicates it to us. (Let me tell you: If he weren’t that way, Ferde would be all over him!) So, by association, I suspect that this level of reverence—one day a week, say, along with the Marian Feast Days like the Assumption—is pretty much the norm.

One more point: While I have tried warming to Mary, as explained here and here, I haven’t fully succeeded. I don’t feel any less a Catholic for that. My devotion, if I have one, is to St. Joseph, who was also a favorite of one of our great female saints, Teresa of Jesus (of Avila). I recently bought one of Ann Burt’s lovely retablos of St. Joseph. I have it hanging in the “prayer corner” of my private office at home with a candle under it. I light the candle every morning and say a prayer to St. Joseph. And I am trying to learn more about him, especially now during Lent.

I do not think my devotion to St. Joseph gets between me and Christ. Joseph and Mary were Jesus’s earthly parents, who sheltered Him and educated Him, and to whom He was obedient. I trust that whatever may be my level of devotion to either of these unique parents, they will only bring me closer to Christ.

But I’ve taken too much space here! Readers, respond please! Not only with doctrine, which I need help with, but especially with your personal experience. Do you think the Church goes overboard with Mary? What about the blog and radio program cited by EPG? Are they typical?

To Support Catholic Artisans and Orders

Guest Post by Allison 
One of our great joys as parents is to celebrate our sons’ milestones. Gabriel’s Confirmation is on the Feast of Pentecost in several weeks and we’ve been pondering how best to mark the occasion.

My husband and I  have been dismayed in recent years to see children of our acquaintance posting their confirmation cash haul as facebook status updates. We  pray the 10 Confirmandi in our parish this year will find deeper meaning in the day.

We are hosting a simple breakfast at our home for friends and family before the Mass. In years past, for invitations and a gift, I would have headed over to the Pauline Books & Media Center, run by the Daughters of Saint Paul to look for invitations and gifts, but the store closed last year.

I felt a real loss when the Sisters shut their doors in Edison, in part because I love supporting religious communities with my shopping dollars. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to fill that void.

Googling, I stumbled on a magnificent site called Monastery Greetings, a mail-order catalog of gifts from abbeys, convents, monasteries and hermitages.

According to the site, Will Keller founded the mail-order company in Cleveland Heights, Ohio in 1997 after discovering that, while these community businesses have high-quality products, they do not have the time or resources for marketing.  Keller majored in both art history and philosophy and religion at Colgate University and worked in the Boston area for a time, managing several divinity school bookstores.

On Keller’s site I found some lovely note cards produced by The Cistercian monks of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.  These and other religious communities are not interested in turning a profit; rather they need enough money to live and pay for health insurance and maintain their buildings.

For his Confirmation gift, we are giving Gabriel a retablo hand painted by Ann Burt of Raleigh, North Carolina.  Retablos are Latin American devotionals.  I discovered Ann here on YIM Catholic as she is a regular commenter.  Ann, the married mother of two, has run a business of commissioned murals and specialty architectural finishes for wall décor for 20 years.

“As far as beginning this business, it started a while ago after visiting my sister in New Mexico.” Ann told me, “ I absolutely fell in love with the spiritual climate of the Southwest. The faith is everywhere you turn and so rich.  Anyway, I began collecting Retablos while really having a desire to create my own, but just not the confidence to actually do it. Realizing too that we are all given certain gifts by God for a reason, I began to think that perhaps this was more than painting but a ministry in itself honoring our friends in heaven and encouraging devotions.”

Gabriel has chosen Isidore as his Confirmation name in honor of San Isidro of Seville, who was Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades. He is considered “the last scholar of the ancient world.” Gabriel chose  this name after our friend Andy, understanding that our son has great respect for people who are intellectually curious, told him about the saint.

The archbishop was the first Christian to compile a summa of universal knowledge, thus creating the very first encyclopedia in medieval civilization. His Etymologia has 448 chapters in 20 volumes. In Raleigh, Ann custom-made a beautiful retablo (see photograph above) of the saint for us.

Other sites of Catholic artisans with which I am familiar include Sarah Harkins of Fredericksburg, Virgina, 28, and a mother of two.  Sarah has been designing and selling her unique clay rosaries and chaplets since she was 15 years old in an effort to inspire others to prayer and deeper contemplation.

It’s impossible to know whether gifts such as retablos or rosaries will have a lasting effect on a child’s faith journey. My parish priest assures me they will.

He was almost speechless with joy on the other end of the phone when I mentioned Greg and I are giving Gabriel a retablo as a Confirmation gift. He said in his years of pastoring he has seen some hugely  inappropriate Confirmation gifts, including a copy of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal.

Our pastor said a gift such as a retablo has profound meaning and that our son will continue to reflect on the saint and the Confirmation every time he sees his St. Isidore retablo.

I pray our priest is as  insightful about this as he is about so many other things.

Now dear reader, let me ask you: from which Catholic artisans do you purchase gifts and sacramentals?

Thanks to 100,000 Visitors, and A Question for You

How does a blog go from a black hole in cyberspace to 100,000 visitors in six and a half months? I’m scratching my head here. “Why I Am Catholic” started as one essay written August 17, 2009, in response to a friend who asked why I had converted. Three hundred eighty-two posts later (382), with the help of loyal copilot Frank Weathers and with ground support from guest poster Allison Salerno, this bird is flying.

OK, we haven’t hit the stratosphere yet, but we’re airborne and cruising. What fuels YIMC?

I have two answers: the Holy Spirit and you. I can honestly say that my best posts (and I bet Frank and Allison would agree) have come from one of two places: (1) a voice whispering in my ear and (2) your comments. In the time since Frank climbed aboard on Thanksgiving weekend, we have begun building a small but loyal on-line community. I’d name some of you but don’t want to leave anyone out. Your comments have helped us navigate.

So, thank you all! And now, back to work! Meaning this: Frank and I have been cruising at high altitude during Lent, to make more time for prayer and reflection. But we’re going to be working our way down to fighting altitude as Easter approaches, and I fully expect YIM Catholic to reach 250,000 visitors by the end of its first year.

What are the issues you want us to address? What are you, valued readers, interested in? Please don’t say, MORE BOOKS, unless you really mean it, because right now no one’s commenting on Mere ChristianityOK, not even me—and don’t tell me you’re all in church 24/7 or that you’ve given up reading for Lent!)

We’ve taken up some interesting stuff so far: confession, the liturgy, our varying relationships with the clergy. Many of the issues discussed concern those on either side of the Tiber, that is, recent converts or those considering conversion. We even started a prayer list so we can pray for one another. What are your interests? Any good poll ideas?

Let us hear from you. Help us fly this plane. And thank you for your attention.

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies III

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your co-pilot speaking.  The weather is great from what we can see here in the cockpit, and we are cruising at 24,000 feet now.  Your pilot Webster has asked me to kindly inform you that we have reached the half-way point of our Lenten journey. For dinner tonight, we will be serving penne pasta with smoked salmon and fresh peas along with freshly baked rolls. Just an hour and a half to wait, so hang in there!

Our inflight entertainment this evening is Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. And I have a confession to make, I have never seen this classic in its entirety. I just never got around to it. It won two Oscars in 1948 for best cinematography and best costumes. We hope you enjoy the show and thanks again for flying YIM Catholic Airlines.

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