Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, Grocery Shopping, and the Transformation of the Self

My sister phoned me yesterday to complain about my father, who had driven several hours to spend Easter with her and her family. He was being his usual surly self, his surliness tempered only by the sentimentality that often overtakes him in his cups. I noted that he hadn't changed much since my mother's death in December. "Unless you're committed to self-transformation," my sister replied, "you're not going to change much."

As I've mentioned here before, my sister (once a daily Mass-goer) is now a committed Buddhist, so, while I'm not sure what Easter means to her, I am aware that the notion of self-transformation is a powerful part of her religious practice.  But even for faithful Catholics, if there's ever a time to be "committed to self-transformation," Lent is it. And I don't know how other people manage it, but I seem to fail miserably at this attempted self-transformation each year.

This year, my Lenten penance was a diffuse attempt to rely on God more radically by striving to consume the copious stores of food in my pantry. I would allow myself to go grocery shopping only when they had run out. This meant curbing my usual practice of buying several of something on sale if the something is a thing I use regularly.  This way, I told myself, I would be identifying with the poor: buying only as much as I needed at one time, buying the cheapest things possible, and eschewing my usual penchant for shopping in the gourmet and organic sections of the supermarket. I worried that I had a tendency to hoard food, and I imagined flinging myself on the mercy of God and relying on him to provide for all our needs.

This didn't work out for several reasons. One was that I realized how time-consuming and costly it was to dash off to the store when I'd run out of an essential item like eggs, instead of buying an extra carton on my regular grocery-shopping trip even if the carton at home in my refrigerator still had four eggs left in it -- even if, in other words, my egg stock wasn't yet depleted. So I soon gave up identifying myself with the inconveniences, logistical difficulties, and annoyances that the poor put up with every day -- because I could.

I failed even in the small matter of coffee. As with most comestibles, when it comes to coffee I'm a fearful snob. My favorite coffee is Peet's Major Dickason's Blend, but, in some pre-Lenten paroxysm of penance, I had told myself that ten dollars was too much to pay for a bag of coffee beans, and I bought Eight O'Clock French Roast instead when it was on a buy-one-get-one sale. I made myself drink it during Lent, and it made me pretty sad -- so sad, in fact, that I cheated, and snuck in a bag of Starbucks toward the end of the forty days (I consoled myself that it was a bag of Starbucks Holiday Blend that I'd found as a deeply-discounted overrun at the local job lot). On Holy Saturday, with palpable relief, I threw out the remaining several-cups'-worth of Eight O'Clock coffee. So I failed to identify myself even with people who couldn't afford to drink expensive coffee, but who still needed, as I do, the buzz that coffee confers.

And then there was the other small matter of anger. I stayed mad at practically everyone I knew during the entire forty days. I found it very hard to let go of my everyday frustration with, and self-righteous indignation at, people who don't do the things I want them to do, or who don't do them in the ways I want them to be done. I cursed and swore many times a day, almost always in a room where I was momentarily alone, but even so. I wanted my family to be different. I wanted my three-year-old to stop acting like a three-year-old; I wanted my autistic son to stop being autistic; I wanted my husband to be less like a man and more like a woman in his emotional presentation and responsiveness. At the same time, I wanted everyone to like and admire me.

I see now that, instead of striving to be holier during Lent, I became obsessed with grocery price-points and whether or not I was getting the respect I felt was my due. And I see that this doesn't make me so different from my non-committed-to-self-transformation father, or from anyone in the world who doesn't observe Lent, since I had substituted material things and material results for that which is real.

And what is that which is real? I long for transformation every week at Mass -- for a transformation that can be felt. I beg God, when I receive him in Holy Communion, to transform me, to make me different,  in a perceptible, lasting way. I want the miracle of transubstantiation to change me, too, utterly. I want to see my old self go up in a conflagration, a holocaust upon the altar.

More often than not, however, I leave Mass feeling the same way I felt when I came in:  angry, petty, frustrated, drab, lifeless, irreparably broken.

The Easter flowers were beautiful on the altar today, and the music, while not exactly good in any Platonic sort of way, was much better than usual. In a few weeks, the flowers will be gone, and the choir will be back to its usual quality. And I will be the same. Or will I?

Perhaps we are all constrained to believe that, through our longing for Him, and through His gift of self to us, God is transforming us in ways that, though they may be imperceptible to us, are truly radical. We may pray for the sensation of knowing, of feeling, this transformation, but this is just as materialistic as my Lenten grocery obsession. We need to believe without seeing, and also without feeling. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the "East Coker" section of Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

A blessed and joyous Easter to all.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ubi Petrus

I came back to the Catholic faith ten years ago. I was a graduate student and a working mezzo-soprano with a busy performance schedule, and I had a part-time job crunching marketing data for a pharmaceutical company. Every morning I would kneel beside my bed -- a bed that was, no doubt mercifully, too big for me for the first time in a long while, and I would weep, and would pray that God would give me a true conversion. Sometimes now, when I think back upon all the many things I've prayed for subsequently (among others, for a happy and holy marriage and family, that my unborn children would survive pregnancy, that a miracle would heal my mother of the rare neurological disease that killed her, and that I would be able to find a friend in the barren new place I now live), it strikes me that that earlier, ten-year-old prayer was by far the most important.

Not long after my reversion, I discovered the existence of a subculture almost entirely unknown to me previously, that of Traditional Latin Mass Catholics (I say almost entirely unknown, because my boyfriend at the time had told me about Mel Gibson's separatist church with a kind of stunned bemusement, and I thought, mistakenly, that Mel and his coparishioners must be some kind of bizarre outliers). I discovered the beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass, and also the painful sort of group neurosis that seems to afflict many of its adherents -- the combination of a siege mentality with a kind of gnosis demonstrated in the belief that they are the keepers of true knowledge and that the majority of Catholics are either stupid or damned, or both. I even went out with a Traditionalist who had some commendable qualities, but who turned out to be a truly scary and unbalanced man (I still thank God, when I remember it, for giving me the momentary wisdom to turn down his proposal of marriage).

I am thrilled beyond belief by the election of Pope Francis. I'm no doubt projecting my own neuroses onto him, for we know little of him as yet, but I feel as if he's a man after my own heart. I was deeply moved by his appearance on the balcony in his plain white vestments, and by the simplicity of his greeting, and that little gesture he made -- so Italian, and, so the people who know the culture of Buenos Aires say, so porteño -- when he said, in his charming Italian, "Fratelli e sorelle . . . buona sera." And by the photos of him washing the feet of the poor, the cast-off, the rejected. And by his words about poverty. And by his taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, which seemed to me a symbol of his profound humility.

In spite of my (admittedly small) experience of Traditionalists, I have to say that I was really shocked by the apparent contempt that many are demonstrating towards our new pope. A friend of mine was unfriended on Facebook by a Trad, who was horrified by the picture my friend had posted of Cardinal Bergoglio washing the feet of impoverished mothers in a maternity home in Buenos Aires; "I'm sorry but Our Lord didn't do that" was the Trad's explanation in a comment. Seraphic demurred, offering the hedge that the papacy was really not that important before JPII.  Charming Disarray, a former sedevacantist, articulates Traddy distress at the election of this clearly holy and doctrinally-orthodox man particularly well.

This is why I never go to the Latin Mass anymore. If it were offered at a parish across the street from me, I might even go a considerable distance to find a novus ordo Mass instead. The Mass itself is beautiful and reverent. The first time I really understood the sacrificial, rather than the celebratory, ethos of the liturgy was at a Latin Mass. But the people are, often, unapologetically mean-spirited and uncharitable.

May God bless our beloved Pope Francis, and may he lead many to the truths of our holy faith.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Poetry Friday: The courage that my mother had

The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.

Oh, if instead she'd left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

More Poetry Friday at Check It Out.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How Not to Do It

No, they probably shouldn't have done that.

My cousin (who, incidentally, is pro-life) posted the video in the link to Facebook. I'd say it's a pretty textbook example of how not to protest abortion. Ironic that one of the protesters is carrying an image of the Divine Mercy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Ultra-light blogging, I know. I'm up against some intractable deadlines in my real-life projects.

In the meantime, there is this, from Mozart's Requiem. 

I think if Mozart had written only this one number and nothing else, nothing at all, he would still count among history's greatest musicians. I love the way that the piece's anxiety resolves into confidence in Christ's mercy.

The conductor is John Eliot Gardiner, the orchestra is the English Baroque Soloists, and the solo quartet is the exceptionally fine foursome of American soprano Barbara Bonney, Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie Von Otter, and the English tenor and bass Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Alastair Miles. The tempo is on the fast side, because the orchestra is playing period and period-replica instruments, whose sounds have a rapider decay than their modern counterparts.

The translation:

Remember, kind Jesus,
my salvation caused your suffering;
do not forsake me on that day.

Faint and weary you have sought me,
redeemed me, suffering on the cross;
may such great effort not be in vain. 
Righteous judge of vengeance,
grant me the gift of absolution
before the day of retribution. 
I moan as one who is guilty:
owning my shame with a red face;
suppliant before you, Lord. 
You, who absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and listened to the thief,
give me hope also. 
My prayers are unworthy,
but, good Lord, have mercy,
and rescue me from eternal fire. 
Provide me a place among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
guiding me to Your right hand.