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Friday, October 5, 2012

Love or What You Will: An Awkward Way of Persuasion

"There were four of you," I said. "Cara didn't know the first thing it was about, and may or may not have believed it; you knew a bit and didn't believe a word; Cordelia knew about as much and believed it madly; only poor Bridey knew and believed, and I thought he made a pretty poor show when it came to explaining. And people go round saying, 'At least Catholics know what they believe."

This time of year causes me to return to favorite places, be they real or imaginary, to refresh my memory regarding those things that have profoundly influenced me, and so I am reading Brideshead Revisited again, what is possibly the greatest Catholic novel of the Twentieth century. It is a novel of great faith and great failing, two things that are inseparable in the fallen world we inhabit. A story of friendship and lovers, of innocence and knowledge. It is a microcosm containing both the extraordinary and the mundane, the "Sacred and Profane".

For those not familiar with the novel, it is the story of the aristocratic Flyte family, the story told by Charles Ryder, a friend of the family's youngest son, Sebastian Flyte. They met at Oxford, when the very charming but inebriated Sebastian vomited through the window of Charles' room, leaning into it, not out of it. Hardly a pleasant way to start a friendship, but the apology was elegant, profuse, and the evidence of the faux pas deftly removed by a well-tipped servant. All was well, forgotten amid plover eggs and cointreau, and Charles began his metamorphosis, his eyes swaying toward Beauty, becoming drawn to different ideals than he had previously known.

Brideshead is not a happy book. It has moments of high humor, to be sure, and scenes of pathos that make one cry. It shows a Faith lived, not necessarily well, but even at its weakest it gives a pervasive substance to all: Charles, Lord and Lady Marchmaine, Bridey, Julia, Sebastian, Cordelia, even Anthony Blanche. There is no escaping knowledge acquired, it haunts you in the darker emotions, exciting guilt, encouraging anger, wearing one down to acceptance or to a destructive denial. The characters evolve toward these ends, finding the odd contentment, the occasional pure joy, both hating and loving that which draws them to higher things, that which draws them away from the shining baubles of this realm to the pure light of another, that which they can only dimly see, but that they know is there. They believe in that which is lovely, that which is Beauty, that which is Truth. They may not wish to believe, but they do, and it is that belief which defines them.

My husband, who introduced me to both Brideshead and ultimately to Catholicism, often tells me that I am a "Bridey" Catholic. By this he means that, like Bridey, the elder son and heir of the Flyte family, my religion pervades my daily life, often to the point of being an annoyance to those not religiously inclined. I can begin and end any discussion with a reference to the Church, I can draw any topic toward it, and I can turn off any number of people by doing so. Such is not my intention, but like Bridey, I can't seem to help it. In finding this, my Faith, I have become a zealot, and while I'm not the best evangelist or example on Her behalf, I love being a part of the Church, and in my own awkward way, I try to bring others to Her, to show them Her Beauty, Her Grace, the ways She already fits into their world, the ways they would fit so easily into Hers.

Yet, these things I see so clearly I cannot express. I hate preachiness, yet find myself falling into a pattern of it, I attempt to explain, and only muddle. It's like being in love. It is being in love.

I entered the chapel of Brideshead before I became a Catholic. I genuflected, as Charles did, to be polite. I eyed a Beauty that appeared too vivid to be described with the formality of Anglicanism or even the plain words of my childhood. I lingered in the doorway of Faith, adjusting to the gleam of the interior life that awaited me, not yet grasping just how affecting a single Host would be when I entered into Her Sacraments. Here was a richness I had never imagined, a loveliness that I had only dared believe because others had believed before me, and a Truth that I still may not fully understand, but that gives me the hope that I someday will. "To understand all is to forgive all", and here, at least, in this Holy place, is just that. Forgiveness from One Who inhabits an oddly decorated room, and in Whom I believe with all reason, and yes, because I find it lovely.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dogmas, Devotions, and Praying with Mary

My very first penance was to say the Magnificat.  I think it was also my shortest penance, but the priests I've tormented since know me better.  Of course, at the time, I didn't have the Roman Catholic version of the canticle memorized, and I could only recall the Anglican one by singing it, so that's what I did.  I sang my first penance before a white marble image of Our Lady.

Between that, my first prayer connected to the Sacraments, and the Regina Caeli, I never stood a chance.  Mary became my spiritual "Audrey Hepburn", the epitome of what I wanted to be and that for which nothing in my childhood had prepared me.  Alas, I will never be doe-eyed, swan-necked, or elegant.  I will never be full of grace either, but one must try.

It is a terribly flawed perception that the Protestant world has of Mary.  I know, for I once saw her as they do.  To them, she is a graven image.  She is a goddess.  She is a falseness that keeps us from the Biblical Jesus.  She is antithetical to the WORD.

I learned differently from listening to a quiet group of women praying.  I was there for choir, and they always started with a corporate Rosary.  I knelt with them, but my intentions were to say only the Our Father and the "Jesus" prayer.  Yet, as I listened to the soft rise and fall of the melodic voices of my new choral friends, I realized that the words didn't mesh with my understanding.  Literally taken, something Protestants are so wont to do, they weren't praying TO Mary, they were asking Mary to pray FOR them.

Such a simple thing, that concept.  How often had I heard my Baptist relatives and friends say to a grieving child, spouse, or parent, "Our loved one is with Jesus now, looking after us."  I've even heard them mention the signs they've received from those who have passed on, letting them know that all is well.

Yet, this simplicity is never applied by them to Mary, she who was conceived without sin so that she could be worthy to bear the Word Incarnate, she who was given to us at the foot of the cross as our mother and we, with John as the symbol of our race, entrusted to her care in that same moment.  She who was assumed body and soul into heaven...why should we doubt that she can speak to her Son on our behalf?  

There is an old hymn that I sang as a child that says "We'll understand it, all by and by."   I had to step out on faith, that what I did not understand might be a failing in me, that  I, like Saul, might still have scales on my eyes, that I needed something more to remove them.  "Blessed are they who believe without seeing."

This first grasp of what Mary was to us, as God's children, allowed me to look beyond my petty questions and lend myself to belief without understanding.  That came later for me, in what I have termed my clicking epiphanies.

 It was music that granted me the beginning of that understanding.  It was the beauty of the liturgy that drew me into the Peace of God, that first tentative encounter with the Joy that has nothing to do with material happiness.   I heard the Regina Caeli without understanding a word of it, but I recognized the Beauty of it.  I saw the incense rise, and it was easy to imagine our prayers and supplications rising with it.  I heard the words of Christ repeated, I saw the age-old actions of the Consecration, I saw Christ lifted and lowered from the cross, and in the breaking of the Host and in the receiving of His Body, I knew Him in a way that made me long to know Him better.  

So I decided to meet His mother.  I came to her through hymns and a rosary.  I met her as I traveled the Stations of the Cross.  I heard her commanding the servants at the Wedding of Cana to "Do what He tells you."  I admired her faithfulness at the foot of the cross.   Always, she is fixed upon her Son.  Always, her intent is to bring our attention to Him.   She, who cradled the unborn Christ (as all pregnant mothers do) accepted the Sorrows that came with being a mother.  Then she adopted us, too, and here we stand as John did, looking upon Christ on the cross, and hearing him say, " Behold your mother", even as she looks upon us and says, "Behold my Son."

So I ask her to pray for me as my choir mates did so many years ago now.   I approach Our Lady with supplications both flippant and serious, for me and for others, and while I cannot hope to be as effectual as those who have led me to this spiritual place, I do hope (to quote an old friend) that when I stand before Jesus, that He will smile upon me and say, "Darlene...Darlene...oh, yes, my mother spoke of you..."

Holy Mary, Mother Of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ecce Agnus Dei...and then, a Miracle Occurred

Many years ago, long before I was Catholic, I knew a woman whose son had died when he was only a boy.   His death was a tragic one, and I often wondered how she could bring herself to speak of him so often, for she never tired of talking of him, describing his childhood as if he were still the toddler in the next room, the child she had held in her arms at Mass, cradling his face and turning him toward the altar during the Consecration, whispering gently to him to "Watch!  This is when the miracle happens!".   It is a story she told often, and one of which I never tired, despite the fact that I never knew her son, that I had no concept of the scene she was watching with her precious child. 

It is one of the first things that I watched for when I became a Catholic.  I had longed to feel the emotion I heard in her voice when she described this moment.   I, too, wanted to see the miracle.  I wanted to know My Lord in the Bread and Wine.  I wanted to recognize Him at that very precise moment when He is again with us, sharing His Body and Blood with us, making us whole by His Passion.  I wanted to see these things with the eyes of both the child in awe and the mother in faith.  

There is a beauty in this moment that is like no other on earth.  Our Faith teaches Christ crucified, His Body broken, His Blood poured, His Wounds marking Him Victim and Sacrifice for the many.  Yet at this moment He is lifted higher than the cross, His elevation in the Host marking Him victorious over it, and then comes the sole moment of gentleness in the tableau.  His Body is lowered, ever so gently, to rest again on the Altar.   It is such a private thing to see, the look of awe on the face of the priest who lifts Him high and then restores Him unbroken to the paten, as if He is once again being laid in the arms of His Blessed Mother.  This is the miracle another grieving mother described to me long before I could understand it.  This is what she recalls when she mourns for her child, that what he once believed he now beholds.  It is what marks us apart from men, this understanding of how Mary felt as she took her Son again into her arms, the recognition of the child in the man, who through no fault of His own was made to suffer and die in agony, in thirst, in nakedness, in abandonment, in shame.  

The bells ring and the moment passes, the priest continues the rite as it was begun, and we partake of Our Lord's Body and Blood.  Some receive Him reverently, some absentmindedly, some worthily, some not.  I imagine it has always been so.  I wonder who it was that lifted him down from the cross?  Was it Longinus trying to be kind to the old Jew from Arimathea or at least get him out of the way?  Did John clamber up to help?  Was Jesus first lifted a little higher to ease Him from the nails or were they pulled away from the wounds?  I like to think that He was lifted from them, leaving the cruelty of cross intact as He was restored once more to the gentle care of His mother.  She who bathed Him as a child would bathe the wounds of the Man.  She who swaddled Him in a manger would wrap Him in His Death linens.  She who witnessed His Death would know Him in His Resurrection.  She, Our Lord's most gentle advocate, her own heart pierced with sorrow, taking His disciple as another son at His command and turning John's face toward the cross as she cradles the Body Broken for us.  "Watch!"  she says.  "This is when the miracle happens."  

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Constant Crisis of When to Play the Bagpipes

I once heard that the definition of a gentleman was "A man who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn't".

This "definition" is one of those phrases that has stayed with me, a metaphoric yardstick by which I measure my own actions around others.  Is this a good moment to let my companions know I can play the bagpipes?  Perhaps I shouldn't even let on that I own a set.  Is there ever a good moment to actually play them?  What if the silence left instead is awkward?  What justifies the sound of the bagpipes, that instrument jokingly labeled the missing link between noise and music?

What if someone else starts playing the bagpipes?  Do I try to discourage them discreetly?  Do I talk over the continuous, unbroken screech of Jacobite angst or do I wait politely for the sound to end before attempting a conversation that lures the enthusiastic one to lay aside his pipes and embrace a better loved instrument, such as harmonica or accordion?

Yet, there are times when bagpipes are necessary, times when nothing but the harshest sound will do.  There is a connection between the sound they make and the culture they inhabit, the customs they herald,  and the scenes they invoke.  Kilts, Auld Lang Syne, the Highlands, and Scotty sending Spock into the great void that will eventually lead to his rebirth.  Who can imagine a world without them, as unpleasant as they may sometimes be?

The sound of bagpipes grows on one.  Watching the Highland games, watching the ceremonial piping  of the haggis, hearing the old airs that convince one that there ne'er will be peace 'til Jamie comes hame, these things would be missing so much without the melancholy sound of the bagpipes.  The sound alone gives them authenticity, the world would lack something without that sound.

Sometimes, I think my purpose in life is to play the bagpipes.  Of course, I am not speaking literally, but I've often been told that while what I say may be true, it is often painful to hear.  Perhaps it's my delivery, perhaps it is that I am an Aries and haven't a clue how to be soft or subtle.  I only know that stating the Truth isn't often appreciated, and it can lead to all sorts of issues with others, be it a mere visible wince or losing one's "friend" status.

Hearing it isn't always pleasant, either. There have been more occasions than I can count that have left me feeling hurt, angry, and disgruntled, often due to the words of those dearest me, those friends, and yes, those priests, who play the bagpipes far too well and too often to be considered polite. They know the worth of the sound that is Truth, that which draws us closer to the society and culture of God, and the closer we get, the more appropriate is the sound of what we hear, until the day arrives that we actually yearn for it.

Here is our Culloden, what seems a lost cause but in which we must hope.  Here is the haggis that no one wants to eat, but without which our banquet would be incomplete.  Here is Truth, its perfect sound grating against the ears of a world that is used to only noise.

We can no longer afford to be gentlemen.