Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thickening the Culture

I know. I haven't posted here in ages. I'm really too busy to keep up this blog right now. Homeschooling has been hugely time-consuming, and I have to get the first draft of my book to the publisher within the next very few months. Besides, though my thoughts are often scintillating to me, I doubt that they would be to you. And no one has time to read blogs anymore, right? Where we once all connected, we've gravitated to Facebook instead, which takes so much less thought and deliberation.

I am guilty of of this too. I read blogs very rarely these days, even those written by my friends. I just don't have the time. I get up at five a.m. to try to do a little bit of research and reading before the day begins, and, once it does, I'm rarely sitting down, unless it's to drive somewhere. (Which means, come to think of it, that I'm actually sitting down quite a lot, since I seem to have become some sort of simulacrum of a suburban housewife, constantly driving to places that neither promise nor supply either satisfaction or rest.)

But I did read Melanie's thought-provoking post the other day, and have been turning it over in my mind. Melanie notes the movement among Catholic mothers -- or at least those who have an online presence -- to revive lost traditions. In the end, she finds herself mourning the loss of a "thick" Catholic culture (a term I love), one that draws American Catholics together in shared celebration, fellowship, and purpose:

We create ersatz holidays that have passing reference to the farmer’s world, we yearn to be connected to the seasons in a liturgical way, but most of us are grasping at straws, we have no idea really what we’re yearning for . . . . We have in our day no harvest feasts or mystery plays, no Michaelmas goose to share with out neighbors. But let us… Let us what? Let us be received? Certainly we are received at Mass, but is that enough? Time and time again I hear that it isn’t. It’s not enough to live the faith on Sundays, it must permeate our lives. And we try, we Catholic mommy bloggers. We try to revive an authentic Catholic culture in our domestic churches. But it seems to me we must do more. We must somehow make these traditions live outside the four walls of our homes, we must make our parishes as well as our homes the seats of authentic Catholic culture 

This is a real cri-de-coeur, to which I unite my own. How does one do this? How do we re-create what has been lost? Melanie suggests that we go outside of our homes, that we make common cause with other people in real life. But will we?

I started this blog in 2007, and the very next year we moved from New York City, where I imagined I'd always live, to northern Appalachia. The difference between the two places, in social customs and much else, is hard to overstate. When you live in a walking-around city, you make friends. When you're shut up in the private realm of your own automobile, you don't.

I assumed that, in a new place, I'd always make friends at church.  But I didn't. There is a vibrant community of orthodox Catholic mothers here, but they did not invite me in; I was so different that i might as well have moved here from Mars. When I received my doctorate and posted a picture of myself in my cap and gown on Facebook (at Lincoln Center, no less,  where my university holds Commencement), one of the mothers in this group said to me, "I didn't know you were still in school," evidently a shocking and bad thing for someone of my station. As a matter of fact, it was only this fall, six years into our sojourn here, that I was invited to one of this mothers' group's weekly meetings, and it was only because someone had gotten wind that I was homeschooling; I would never have been invited in if I had kept my older son in public school, evidently (I declined -- not because I'm too proud, but because it seemed futile).
(This is an actual real-life picture of me, a first for this blog. Did you know that when you get an advanced degree in music, your hood is pink, and your gown has pink trim?)

I'm convinced, sadly, that syncretizing a newly-vibrant Catholic culture out of recipes and crafts cobbled together from Pinterest and other mothers' blogs is destined to fail, or at least to fail to "thicken," and that the main reason for this is that we are all doing it in our own homes with our own children, and then posting about it on the internet. In short, we are not going out to meet each other -- not even in church, much less in the street. And if we don't meet each other, we can't invite each other over. We are not breaking down barriers; we are, in fact, raising them a little higher with our lovely photos of what we've accomplished and you can too! But comboxes do not make a community, and those crafts, no matter how lovely, are not a substitute for traditions and lore passed down from generation to generation.

I was particularly touched by Melanie's mention of making challah from a recipe of her husband's great-grandmother. I have often felt wistful about Jewish culture, which, in some ways, is the original "thick" culture. Jews -- at least religiously observant Jews -- have a shared sense of purpose and fellowship. They have jokes. They have excellent liturgical music. I used to sing the High Holy Days services in an eight-voice choir at a well-heeled synagogue near the U.N., attended by many diplomats, and the music we sang truly imparted to me, as a performer, a powerful sense of God's wonder and awe. That hasn't ever exactly happened to me at church. At synagogue, the elders fuss over the youngsters, and help guide them in the faith and inculcate in them a shared sense of cultural and spiritual endeavor. Some oof the ultra-Orthodox, like the Chabad Lubavitchers, have what can only be called a cult of joy. I had a Lubavitcher student back in New York who used to play at all the big Hasidic weddings in Brooklyn -- he was a jazz drummer -- and he often invited me to attend them. I didn't feel comfortable crashing, especially as an outsider, but I longed to witness the ecstatic music and dancing I had heard about. Joy! And what do we have? Well, if it's joy, I haven't tasted it, at least not in our culture or our so-called fellowship, in our music, in our gatherings, or in the ways that we deal with one another at Mass or outside of it. The Catholics here are cold, cold, cold.

I do not know if it's the same elsewhere. I've heard that midwestern Catholic churches are legendary for their outreach and hospitality; certainly the Protestants have that all over us, too. A few years ago there were some faint stirrings of a new Catholic agrarian-localist movement, inspired by the writings of people like Eric Brende and the briefly-Catholic Rod Dreher; but I don't know anyone who attempted such a lifestyle or whether it worked out for them.

I think in the end one has to assess the place where one finds oneself, and try to push into it, to knead it a little -- indeed, to thicken it with one's own flesh-and-blood actions. How do we do this? I don't know, but I suppose each in her own way, utilizing her own gifts. I think we have got to get out from behind our screens and do something in our communities, however small. I think of this often in my car as I drive around my down-at-heels new city (though it's not so new now), looking out at the depressed and impoverished pedestrians walking for necessity, not for joy, against the bleak landscape. Sometimes, at those moments, I find myself chanting aloud: "Make the desert bloom! Make the desert bloom!" I'm quite sure we are called to do this, though I'm not quite sure how.


Kimberlie said...

Your post, and Melanie's thoughts, resonate with my own. When I activated a FB account, I blogged less and less, yet I posted more and more nonsense each day. I had my "Friends" and yet how well do we really input into each others' lives. I left FB to go back to blogging and to be more present to my family. I feel more connected to those who matter.

I long for a "thick" culture. When I attended my aunt's funeral in NJ in August, there was a huge wedding celebration weekend happening with a large Orthodox Jewish community (Hassidic maybe based upon the hair styles of the men, dress and most married women wearing wigs?). I saw their community, sensed the closeness, the tradition, the togetherness and I longed for it. Your post reminded me of stories I have read of the rhythm of a Catholic community focused on the liturgical calendar and not the secular calendar. Though as much as I try to adopt and impose some traditions via nifty blog posts or Pinterest, I just fail. We can't do it on our own. We need a community to come along side of us.

Pentimento said...

It does seems as if we're each doing it in our own homes in a sort of vacuum enabled by pretty pictures. I'm happy to learn about some traditions, but the exercise of them in your own home without the larger context of church and community doesn't seem to make them stick.

One of the things I've found since moving here is that my friends are not the friends I ever expected to have; we don't have that much in common. But perhaps that's a good thing.

Paula said...

Greetings! A bit off topic, but had a question to ask you regarding Hermann Cohen and his music. I have been following your blog postings for sometime and have enjoyed being educated in the 'music' realm and insights on Catholic conversions etc. If I recall correctly, sometime back you did a piece on Hermann Cohen. I thought perhaps you might be able to guided me to some good recordings of his music.

Please know my request is rooted in the fact that my daughter was accepted into a Carmelite novitiate this past Advent, and while doing some reading on the Carmel St. Kalinowski, who wrote a biography on Hermann Cohen, I learned of Cohen.

If you are able to assist, it would be greatly appreciated! Sorry for the interruption ... and thank you for your fine postings!

Pentimento said...

Paula, thank you for your comment. How wonderful about your daughter!

I didn't know about St. Kalinowski but looked him up. I will have to see if his book on Hermann Cohen has been translated. Thank you for the reference.

The only recording I know of Hermann's music is his Mass of St Teresa. There is a live performance recording, which unfortunately has very poor production values. You can get a copy here:

Also, there is an American pianist, Justin Kolb, who has performed Hermann's piano music in a program called "Liszt and the Barefoot Carmelite." If I recall correctly, he is trying to put together a recording. I know him and I can put you in touch if you like.

Paula said...

Beautiful! In reading about Cohen I came upon an article promoting the performance of "Liszt and the Barefoot Carmelite" but could not tell if it was ever recorded. I certainly would like to encourage Justin Kolb to do so. I would be first in line to purchase!

Thank you so much for the link to the other recording and heads-up on its quality. I definitely will contact the group.

So too, thank you for expressing your kind delight regarding my daughter. My husband is Jewish (daughter's father) and we belong to the Association of Hebrew Catholics, so I have over the years collected books, music, movies etc. that unite our common heritage.

Reading about St. Kalowinski I learned that he was born in the same town as my husband’s great grandparents in Vilna. From what I have read, Hermann Cohen’s influence on Princess Ampora lead her to enter Carmel in Paris, later transferring to Cracow. She in turn had impressive influence on St. Kalinowski to become a Carmelite. ... perhaps leading him to write a biography on Cohen.

My daughter’s interview w/the Carmel Order fell on the date of this Saint's death, and two-days before his Memorial day. Upon learning this, we both thought it was best to invoke his intercession on her behalf. His great, great grand niece has a very informative website on her saintly uncle: Elonka's Family: Pics and Info about Saint Raphael Kalinowski

In your readings about Hermann Cohen, did you learn that he had a miraculous cure at Lourdes? It is a fascinating story.

Again, thank you for the information, particularly on Justin Kolb and the link to his website. What state does he reside?

Pentimento said...

Paula, is there any way you and I could correspond via email? If you leave a comment here with your email address, I will not publish it, but will be able to contact you directly.

The book I'm currently writing for a scholarly publisher in England is about religious conversion in nineteenth-century Britain in the context of the changing auditory landscape. There is a chapter about Hermann, who was active in England in the 1860s. I will tell you more about it in private correspondence.

I actually saw Justin Kolb a couple of months ago; I gave a paper about Hermann at a symposium on music iconography, and I had him play an excerpt from one of Hermann's piano works.

Paula said...


Pentimento ... I have been smiling all day! My e-mail is

I had a very dear friend, Art Clifton, who died in November 2008 who loved music. I met him as a new hire to a media dept. of an ad agency in Chicago right out of college. He was the agency's Creative Director.

Nearly twenty years later our paths crossed again in a wonderful way, around music — I needed a jingle for my daughter's birthday party ... but he did do 'hippie'. (LOL) It was at this time I really got to know him, his wife and family.

He was the founder of the Wagner Society of America and was on the Junior Governing Board of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. If he were with us today, he would thoroughly enjoy your writings.

For me he was a sincere spiritual mentor and helped me walk back the Catholic faith.

Your book's topic sounds fascinating! I know that the Assoc. would be interested in it upon its completion.

I need to run and make dinner for the crew. Looking forward to hearing more. God bless your evening. God is good!

Anonymous said...

I just have to stop in here and say that it is nice to read a post from you, though I understand about not blogging or even reading blogs as much as before. I can't imagine the different world it would have been, in my 21 years of homeschooling, if I had had Facebook or a blog.
In those years I also did not have the thick culture you long for. We have it in my Orthodox parish, which is large enough to have many opportunities every week for people to connect through the church services and activities, and I wish that were the context in which my children had grown up. For me, it's odd to experience this supremely nourishing, Christ-full culture mostly on my own. I suppose that sounds less than supremely nourishing. :-)
It makes me so happy for you that you are able to homeschool, and I pray God's blessing on you and your family and much joy.
And I love seeing your photo!!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, GretchenJoanna! I'm always happy to see you here.

priest's wife said...

thought provoking....we have to make this thick culture- which is easier said than done for busy people- start small and who knows?

Enbrethiliel said...


I wasn't really able to join Melanie's discussion, but it definitely gives a voice to something that I've been thinking about for a while--at least since I realised that I've experienced a discontinuity not just of religious culture, but also of national culture.

A few months ago, a Filipino celebrity who is also known for his political activism tweeted in a discussion of apathetic university students: "Nobody reads history anymore. Their minds have been shaped by paid media." And while I couldn't disagree with him, one assumption in that tweet rubbed me the wrong way. For if you have to read about your history, then you've already forgotten it, haven't you? And if you've forgotten it, that's probably because a previous generation didn't pass it on. The current crop of uni students didn't come out of nowhere: they grew out of a culture prepared by the generations that came before.

Now, I'm not a fan of passing the buck . . . but in the case of the Philippines, it really is true that the generations which were in control when I was born failed to prepare for my generation a proper inheritance. They sold everything from our natural resources to our cultural identity, for a little bit of money in the present. It was a very real betrayal of their children--though I'm sure it wouldn't have seemed that way at the time. Culture is resilient, right? =P

So I envy our Asian neighbours for, among other things, having valued their national costumes enough to insist on bringing them into the modern world: the longyi of Burma, the ao dais of Vietnam, the sari of India . . . Perhaps the Filipino patadyong and balintawak were not as practical as these . . . but did we have to get rid of everything--the silhouettes, the patterns, the weaving, the textiles--wholesale? We still see men wearing the barong Tagalog during weddings and other formal occasions--but the women often wear western-style gowns. I first saw the extent of my cultural impoverishment and illiteracy when I was studying in New Zealand and my hostel had its annual "International Students Night". All the other Asian girls brought out the formal, tailored national costumes that they had carried with them over an ocean . . . and I had never even been fitted for a terno. It had never occurred to me that I would want to be--and never occurred to the women who had raised me that I should have been.

So what can be done in this case? Unlike Catholic mothers, young Filipinos can't scour the Web to find handy outlines of what traditions mean or step-by-step instructions for recreating them. Every Palm Sunday, I buy an intricately woven palm from a vendor outside my church, who very likely learned the skill at home. Although my family either never learned to weave palms or learned but never thought to pass the knowledge on (both scenarios being very likely!), this tradition is part of our thick national and religious culture. But if we want to learn how to do it, we will have to go to YouTube. And right now, YouTube has got nothing.

Of course, even if it did, I'd still be weaving in a vacuum. A vacuum world of one. And ironically, this is one reason why I long so desperately to be able to start a family. In that case, at least I'd have companions, however few, with whom to till the fallow ground, to make the desert bloom, and to mix bad metaphors. =P I think that's what everyone wants--and those who already have a few companions naturally want a few more, for a community that feels as thick as it's supposed to be.

Enbrethiliel said...


PS -- Nice photo! ;-) I hadn't know that about pink.

Pentimento said...

Oh, good to see you here too, Enbrethiliel!

The seemingly wholesale loss of Filipino culture is very sad. How did it happen so quickly? I want to see pictures of Filipino dress now.

Anne-Marie said...

When the thick culture has evaporated, it's inevitable that our attempts to revive it will feel awkward--because they are to some extent contrived. They have to be; that's what it means to have lost the culture. As we get habituated to them, they come to feel more natural and they become part of the culture. So I think you and Melanie shouldn't be discouraged by that aspect. Heck, my family moved last year to a parish that has a relatively thick Catholic culture (subculture? counterculture?) and even so, some of what we do together sometimes feels artificial.

But Melanie's right that it is crucial to do things with other people. Could you join or start a book group, either for yourself or for your boys, at the local library? Could you organize a sing-along, maybe of old-timey songs? Or maybe just volunteer at bingo regularly, so as to make friends?

Have you seen the blog "Building the culture" is a favorite theme of hers. And because she believes strongly in the real world and not just the virtual one, she's set up a network called "St Gregory Pockets" to help people create real-life get-togethers. There's a link to it near the top of her page.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your comment, Anne-Marie. These are all really good ideas. I didn't know about the St. Gregory's Pockets -- I haven't been reading blogs much at all for a while as I've tried to work on my book -- but I love the idea and that Leila is facilitating them. I need to think about what might work here. If only all of us lived in the same place!

Jenny said...

I know I am weeks behind here, but how do you feel about the pink? I was so dejected when I found out I had to wear pink. Wouldn't have been my first choice. Maybe a nice teal or something.

Pentimento said...

If I weren't so grateful to have completed my doctorate while teaching and trying to figure out how to be a mom, I would have been bummed. I was a little jealous of the Ph.D.'s in audiology, who walked the stage right before the music program. Not only did I feel like I should have gotten their degree, but their hoods were white and looked really cool.