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Respect for the Dead: Normalizing It for Kids

6 Jun

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.”
~ Fred Rogers

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Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

31 Mar

“It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and…which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
~
Pope St. Paul VI

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” said my wife, Nancy. “That new picture you got from the library? You hung it upside down.”

She was referring to “Goldfinch and Cherry Tree” (c. 1834) by Hokusai Katsushika. It’s the latest installment in our household gallery which features a solitary work of art, intermittently alternated, at the bottom of our main staircase. Our source is the main branch of the superb St. Joseph County Public Library, which has an extensive collection of framed prints that patrons can check out for a few weeks at a time.

I remember when I first made use of this unusual service after hearing about it from friends. I was outside the downtown branch’s children’s area on the third floor when I spied a framed print propped up on a tripod. It was something recognizable – maybe the “Mona Lisa” or something famous like that. “Can I really check this out on my card?” I asked a passing librarian.

“Sure,” she replied with a shrug. “And there’s more in that hallway around the corner.”

Indeed there was. Scores of framed prints of various sizes and shapes. Paintings, photos, drawings, and even retro promotional posters. The Becker Rotating Stairwell Gallery was born, and I’m told by the librarians that many in the community regularly swap out selections like we do. And since the checked-out items, like books, can be renewed twice, that means that there’s a steady flow of local domestic curators returning to the library every couple months to select something new to exhibit.

By default, I’ve become the curator of our own rotating display. I’ll turn in the previous selection at the circulation desk, and then head upstairs to browse the available collection. Sometimes I’ll search for a specific print, especially if someone at home made a request, but usually I’ll just go with my gut and choose something that catches my fancy at the moment. A big, bright Georgia O’Keefe flower is ideal in the middle of winter, for example, but something languid and light seems more fitting as the weather warms – like “The Siesta” (1890) by Van Gogh, one of Nancy’s favorites.

And that’s one of the joys of this routine now that we’ve been doing it for so many years. Some of the repeat picks have become familiar to us all, and we even have certain ones that stand out in our memories. Based on an informal survey of the fam and my own (albeit biased) impressions, here’s a few that rise to the top of the list.

  1. Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World” (1948): My daughter, Joan, herself a serious artist, particularly recalls that “we once had a copy of ‘Christina’s World,’ which I really liked.” Me, too. To view this poignant scene through Wyeth’s eyes is to be simultaneously unsettled and comforted. The lush, illuminated landscape is peaceful; the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings on the horizon, reassuring. Yet, the young girl in the foreground appears to be lacking composure as she begins to crawl, leaning toward her home and yearning for shelter and solace. The fact that the painting’s subject, Anna Christina Olson, was in fact crippled from a childhood illness offers some insight into the painting’s allurement, but its power to conjure wistful reflection extends well beyond its historic origins.
  2. Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I: Tomato 46” (1968): If there’s one print that’s come to represent the spirit of our revolving collection, it’s this pop classic. “That one is clearly the family favorite,” writes my daughter, Meg, although my wife would demur – strongly. Even so, Nancy demonstrates a tremendous generosity of spirit in quietly enduring the soup can’s appearance in our stairwell about once a year. Personally, I think “Tomato 46” is hilarious, and it certainly challenges assumptions about what art can and should be – which was part of what Warhol was getting at. Plus, it prompts me to contemplate this thoroughly modern artist’s unusual interior topography, for he was a Mass-going Eastern-rite Catholic who respectfully, perhaps conscientiously, avoided the sacraments. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the church,” said a priest who knew him, and we can hope that this visionary seeker made his peace with God before his death in 1987.
  3. M.C. Escher, “High and Low” (also known as “Up and Down,” 1947): This lithograph, like so many works by Escher, is abrupt and intellectually demanding. It’s also another consensus favorite in my family, and I think its occasional placement at the bottom of our staircase offers a subtle ironic counterpoint to the routine clambering of our daily lives. You have to pause when you see it, slow down and ponder its interlocking, yet conflicting perspectives, or else ignore it and pass it by. Its beauty is in its complexity, and while it is narrowly vertical, it nonetheless prompts the viewer to expand his mental horizons. Like the work’s two pairs of figures gazing at each other amid the convoluted angles, we’re invited to broaden our outlooks while attending to what’s right in front of us.

And that brings me back to Katsushika’s “Goldfinch” and Nancy’s admonition about its topsy-turvy placement. “That’s what Katharine said when I put it up,” was my reply. “But the hanging wire is positioned that way, and, besides, it looks even weirder the other way around.”

Kath chimed in. “Yeah, it’s not right,” she said, adding, “I don’t like this one.”

And yet, there it hangs in our stairwell – and it’ll stay there for another, oh, six weeks or thereabouts, despite Kath’s disapproval. When I snagged it off the wall at the library, I saw the graceful ascent of the cherry blossoms contrasted against the deep blue background – nice. Frankly, the finch escaped my notice at the time, but his awkward pose makes the painting all the more appealing to me now.

For, as curator (and dad), I’m not simply interested in adorning our stairwell with pretty pictures. I’m especially inclined to host images that rattle and rouse, confound and console. I think that’s what Pope St. John Paul II was driving at when he wrote about the “art of education” in his 1999 Letter to Artists (§4). He explained that “genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (§6). Thus, the Katsushika print is beautiful, but not only beautiful. The upturned bird catches our attention and imagination: Is the artist telling us something about himself? His community or society? The world?

Moreover, how can Katsushika’s vision inform our own? As St. John Paul notes, we might not all be artists, but all of us are called to make of our lives “a work of art, a masterpiece” (§2). For now, Katsushika is a resident mentor in that regard, and we can dwell for a time with his artistic expression. Who knows? Maybe “Goldfinch” will have even grown on Kath by the time it’s returned to the library. Even if it doesn’t, she, like the rest of us, will have benefited from the encounter.
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Who Knew? NPR is Pro-Life!

3 Mar

“The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II (MD §19)

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Of Bad Hearts, Broken Hearts, and Holy Hearts

1 Sep

“The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart.”
~ Dorothy Day

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Fitting Our Journey to God’s Map

10 Aug

“You must have a map, no matter how rough.
Otherwise you wander all over the place.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Latin: A Convert’s Romance in Three Movements

22 Apr

“This ‘one language’…was an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Allegro

The waitress dropped off our check, and the busboy was starting to clear away our syrupy dishes. “Do you have any other questions?” the priest asked.

Like the waitress, Fr. Tom was itching to get on with his day. He’d already given up a good chunk of his morning over breakfast with me, but he was being trying to be understanding and polite. I was an utterly naïve Catholic wannabe who had parachuted intellectually into the melee of early-1980s catechetical confusion, and I was desperate for straight answers and guidance. As pastor of my Uptown parish, Fr. Tom was generously taking the brunt, and he did his best to field my many questions about Mary, the papacy, confession, and the like.

“Well, yes, I do have one more,” I replied. Fr. Tom waited – I hesitated. It was an embarrassing question that I knew would expose my flights of anachronistic Catholic fancy. “I bought this Rosary the other day” – my first one; I still have it! – “and there’s some Latin on the crucifix. Can you translate it for me?”

I figured (correctly) that Fr. Tom had gone to seminary when Latin was still required, and he nodded as I handed my beads to him. “Let’s see…Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi. Basically it means ‘Behold the wood of the cross which holds the savior of the world.’” It was a condensed line from the Good Friday liturgy, with which I’m well familiar now, but Fr. Tom didn’t mention it at the time. I thanked him and accepted back the Rosary without further comment.

Inside, however, I was thrilled. It seemed so mysterious, so obscure, and yet so solid, so reassuring. Somehow, it meant more to me that the words were in Latin than if they’d been in straight English – or Italian, or even Biblical Greek for that matter. The Roman part of Roman Catholic seemed inexorably bound up with the Latin language, and now I not only had my own little token of it, but I even understood what it meant! It was like I’d been granted an insider’s glimpse of something essential about the Faith – it’s character, it’s personality. It was a small emblem of entrée into a world utterly foreign to me, but it was significant. The Church, to me, was like a family, a big, messy family, with its own bewildering constellation of traditions and quirks and esoteric language, yet it was to be my own.

I clutched my Latin-laced token as if it was a ticket for an ocean crossing.

Andante

“But why is the word for ‘ship’ feminine when the word for ‘sailor’ is masculine?” I asked my longsuffering Latin instructor. “And a farmer is masculine, but farming itself is feminine?”

He sighed, and I suspect the others sitting around the long table did so inwardly. It was supposed to be an accelerated Latin course for graduate students, not a seminar in philology. “There is no reason,” he calmly explained for the umpteenth time. “It’s just how it is. It’s just how the language developed.”

I didn’t buy it, but I let it go…again. We resumed our plodding through Allen and Greenough, and I shelved my curiosity. I was working on a master’s in medieval history at the University of Colorado, and my goal was supposed to be acquiring a reading knowledge of Latin, not unpacking its subtle linguistic lineage. Yet, as I struggled with vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions, I kept coming back to Latin’s alluring temperament. I should’ve been anxious to get on with utilizing the language to tackle minims, miniscule, and manuscripts, but I was getting bogged down in the language itself.

Then the moment came when it became clear that medieval studies were not to be my life’s work. A different instructor took over the second half of the accelerated Latin course, and, on a lark, he decided that we’d spend the final weeks of the semester translating the Vulgate’s version of John’s Gospel instead of Cicero. Who knows why he chose this – at a state university of all places. Regardless, we all dove in – and I was transfixed by the text. The debates about translation naturally revolved around meaning, and I swiftly drifted away from caring much about paleography and medieval charters. What mattered was John’s theologizing about the God-man’s invasion of our world.

As you’d expect in such a class, the goings were slow, but we managed to arrive at John 6 before the term concluded. “The text is pretty straightforward,” the instructor indicated. “Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem habet vitam aeternam – ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ And it aligns well with the Greek. Thoughts?”

It was an open invitation and I jumped at it. I gave a rudimentary overview to my classmates of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but with a revealing enthusiasm that marked me for a divergent future. Clearly my career trajectory wasn’t going to involve staid academic impartiality. I was a sectarian partisan, and it wasn’t long after that day that I dropped out of the medieval studies program and headed off to Steubenville to study theology. Once again, a singular encounter with the Church’s dead language had resulted in a lifegiving epiphany.

Presto

Mrs. Dance had Ben’s folder open and it was time to choose his freshman language requirement. “I don’t care what else you take in high school,” I told my teenage son. “But you have to take Latin.”

Why not Spanish? Why not something useful? Why not, why not, why not…? I wouldn’t budge, and I haven’t budged since. Ben and two of his siblings have since graduated high school having enjoyed (or endured) at least three years of Latin each; Crispin will graduate this spring after a full four years. Cecilia is in her second year, and her two younger siblings will follow in her footsteps once they get there. Honors courses, dual-credit college courses, calculus and trig (or drawing and digital photography) – whatever they’d like. But Latin? It’s a must.

For one thing, I’m still persuaded by the argument that there’s no better way to buttress vocabulary, writing skills, and critical thinking than a hefty dose of Europe’s original lingua franca. My collegiate children back me up on this to a certain extent – although there’s a considerable lobby there to allow their younger siblings to acquire a modern, “practical” language.

Overruled.

Besides, in addition to Latin’s value as a prep for the S.A.T. and college-level composition, there’s also the fact that it has always been everybody’s high school home base – an oasis in their daily grind, a safe space, both intellectually and socially, even emotionally. This stands to reason if you consider the camaraderie that would naturally emerge when kids of varying classes and backgrounds are compelled by their backward parents to study an ancient tongue. “It was great,” Crispin told me. “There were people I’ve been close to in Latin that I’d never run into outside of class.” And whenever our teens over the years have laughingly shared school-day anecdotes, they’ve more often than not emanated from Latin class.

But this is all smokescreen. The real reason – the ulterior motive, as it were – for my insistence on Latin for my kids has always been because it’s the language of the Church – the syntax and structure of how the Church thinks, the way our Faith family communicates at her very core. I want that drummed into their heads, along with sound catechesis and regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church, so that, if they’re ever to stray, they’ll be plagued by Latinate cadences. They’ll be haunted by the drumbeat of ecclesial sentence structure, and their very imaginations will be penetrated by Romish categories of reason.

That’s not to say that I don’t want them to think for themselves, to think broadly and openly – far from it. “Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples,” Pope St. John XXIII declared. “It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.” Its static character is its very advantage, for it fosters organized thought while allowing for wide-ranging entertainment of other and opposing views. And can there be a better foundation for achieving fluency in other languages – Romantic and otherwise – which, in turn, will lead to intellectual meanderings and couplings well beyond the Catholic fold?

Yet, no matter how far they wander, their years of Latin study will ensure an ingrained mental link to the liturgical language of their ecclesial homeland. Even if they come to reject and despise their baptismal heritage, they’ll carry with them that heritage’s mode of expression. That’s critical, because they are coming of age in a culture “often characterized by concern with appearance, superficiality,” as Pope Francis put it recently, “the division between heart and mind, interiority and exteriority, consciousness and behavior.” Study of Latin and Latin literature, the Holy Father said, can be part of the antidote to such postmodern existential caprice, for it can help young people find “the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence,” to connect them to “the inner and intimate essence of the human being.”

Certainly, in a much more limited and haphazard way, that’s what Latin did for me – at least insofar as it contributed to my grounding in the life of the Church. And there’s nothing more important to me than fostering a similar grounding for my children. It’s the best I can offer them, and they shall have it, despite their objections. Felix culpa – amen.
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