Blog Template Theology of the Body

Saturday, December 08, 2012

My early morning thoughts, and the Immaculata

One of the greatest pleasures in my life is watching my baby wake up in the morning. When the light is still dim, she stirs a little next to me, adjusts her little body, breathes a little lighter. Gradually, there is another set of shifts and stretches among the pillows, one arm, then the next, a craning of her little neck, an arching of her little back, perhaps a defiant kick of her little feet. Eventually, we have cognition, open eyes, a still sleepy head held high triumphantly, a lilting "good moooowning mama," before the day's first demands for juice, or a movie, or whatever.

I love watching these first, early movements of each day because these are the primitive movements she made when she was first born, and before she was born- those aimless little stretches, the unformed reaching. I otherwise don't see those movements anymore. Her daily activity is rapidly becoming that of a coordinated little girl. She dances, and runs, and bounces, and kicks and throws her little balls remarkably well. She helps me scramble eggs. As she would be the first to tell you, she rides horses, because she brave. But in her half- awake, semi conscious state of the early morning, she is for a few moments again tiny, aimless, embryonic. And I treasure that.

As her mother, I think so often of how God parents us. How, as a merciful parent, He must be amused and calm and endeared when we are not quite collected. How He must sigh in infinite patience when we lose our hard-earned coordination and tumble at His feet, screaming with frustration, with nothing left to need but fatherly consolation. How He must smile when, every now and then, we successfully dance, or toss our balls, or act with the courage and the dignity and skill for which we are made. How He must dream of the day when we will be champions of grace, giving Him the credit that is truly due to His excellent paternal care. And yet how He treasures us even in the early and unformed times too, when our weak souls are embryonic, and when the grace in our lives becomes unformed because of sin.

So much mercy. Because in the utterly gratuitous beginning, our God made a world fully formed. Everything that was made, was made. Adult Adam, adult Eve. Everything ready and willing for vigorous, effective stewardship, and fruitfulness, and fully intimate fellowship with their Creator and with one another. Our first parents were for a time gorgeous, coordinated, collected champions of grace. It is not surprising that when the dawn of the new creation began to break, God started again with grace fully formed, adult, flourishing, mature, lacking nothing, in the handmaiden who would conceive His Son. In her, everything was ready and willing for stewardship, and fruitfulness, and fully intimate fellowship with her Creator and with us. In the New Eve- as with the first Eve, but better- there would be no embryonic, unformed virtue, no baby days of confused uncollectedness. There was no lacking that remained to be filled by experience and instruction. She is she who is full of grace. God is the Creator who makes things that are fully formed. In the beginning, He did it once; in Mary, He did it again.

It is fitting that we acknowledge that we are different. We are embryonic, we become infants time and time again. We obviously sin. We undo the full grace of our baptism. In our baby souls, day in and day out, we grow, revert, try again. And because of the fully formed one who once said yes, we are given the mercy of living and moving and being in the One who, in His mercy, gave Himself a mother in order to take on every aspect of our humanity. In His mercy, He gives us His mother too. I imagine they are both watching our craning and stretching and our waking little triumphs together, in the early morning light of Advent.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I took a survey today while my little one was napping. The poll, which was attached to an online article offering suggestions on how to foster "generosity and sharing" in children, asked parents to identify the top values that they would like to instill in their tots. Parents were asked to choose between empathy, responsibility, respect, honesty, and yes, generosity.

I didn't choose responsibility; history's greatest villains have shown us that a person can act in downright evil ways, and still be sure to get the job done expeditiously, with great responsibility.

Respect? Super important, especially according to Maria Montessori, but my little one is two. I'd rather first cultivate a sense of fearlessness and adventure right now, rather than the prudence, caution and restraint that must come with future social training and a certain loss of innocence. For instance, my baby is slowly learning to behave reverently in Mass (sometimes), but this is mainly because she actually seems to love Jesus and is intrigued by His presence on the altar. It's not because, at two, she has developed great consideration for other worshippers and their cultural norms and expectations- which, for now, is fine with me. Respect involves a degree of healthy fear, and fear is not healthy for expanding toddler sensibilities and intelligence.

Honesty? That's great too, but my little one will someday learn, with her aforementioned social training, that not everything true must be spoken. One can be very honest and still behave cruelly and without charity.

I faltered a little at empathy, because that's just a very Christian virtue, but it's our modern context that has over-promoted it as such, and so I moved on.

I chose generosity. Because my foremost task is to prepare Caeli for Heaven. Secondly, it's to promote her well being and her happiness. She will get to Heaven by pouring her life into God and others, as the saints have shown us, as God incarnate and crucified showed us. And in so doing, she will be happy. Done. Selection made.

To my surprise, this poll's results showed my selection to be a vastly unpopular one. "Respect" led the way at 38%. "Honesty" ranked in at 20%, and "Empathy" and "Responsibility" were tied at 19% each (forgive me, but that's so very, very, provincially American). My favored "Generosity" staggered in at 4%. Which, perhaps, is why this fun little poll was attached to a ten point article on teaching modern American kids to "share."

What makes me so sad about this statistic is this: of all the other virtues, real generosity can't really be trained or tutored. You can fake empathy and you can enforce honesty, responsibility, and respect. But generosity has to be experienced. We love because we have been loved first. We share because we have been given something. We reach out because we have been made whole, comforted.

So is this stat a commentary on modern parenting? I think so. When I was preparing for my baby's birth I was inundated with philosophies of parenting that had much to do with the importance of "drawing boundaries" between the parents and the child, the "dangers" of losing one's self in motherhood, the absolute importance of tiny helpless infants gaining "a sense of self sufficiency and independence" (which, I think, can be ridiculous). The problem is that the prioritization of these proposals does not require the practice of generosity as a parenting style. And little ones learn what they live, as the saying goes. If they are raised among the priorities of self sufficiency and impervious boundary- drawing, we ought not be surprised when they mind their own interests first and refuse to share their stuff, and refuse to behave like givers, sharers, empathizers. We ought not be surprised if, later in life, they draw strong boundaries around their adult interests, "refuse to lose themselves" in caregiving, and, insisting on the independence and self sufficiency of their ailing elderly, they install their forgotten, aging parents in nursing homes (I'll readily admit that a lot of my parenting style has to do with the fact that when I am a very old woman, and frail and dependent, I don't want to be left to cry it out and self-soothe in a crib with a monitor).

What ultimately saddens me most about this little poll result is that I think it reflects the diminution of our sense of the awesome responsibility and gift of motherhood. Motherhood, of it's very nature, is pure generosity. In the creation, the mother IS the giver par excellence, the paradigm of sharing. Her utterly dependent baby comes from, grows from her body, in utero and without. The child's brain is formed by the intonation and content of her speech and the frequency of her touch. This is, per se, the life of giving. Of its very nature, motherhood has amazingly little to do with drawing boundaries and preserving personal interests and identities, particularly when it is done well. And we fail to honor this and celebrate it when we relegate motherhood and child raising to a set of practices that are understood in terms of "responsibility, honesty, and empathy" rather than the sheer joy of giving.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I have been thinking a lot lately about fidelity. It's not a popular term; there's a reference to the idea in the motto of the United States Marines, "semper fi," and it bears the dull shine of scandal when one speaks of its absence, as in, "there has been an in-fidelity," and then there is an awful sense of wrong doing of some sort that teases the limits of our moral sense. Its root is very simple: Wiki says fidelity is the state of being faithful or loyal. One might think most immediately of vowed monogamy, in the sense of showing up, staying put, avoiding physical or emotional excesses of the wrong kind, looking straight ahead, doggedly avoiding flirtations; a quiet, unchanging custodianship of that which once was desired and prized, now retained in quieter, solidly exclusive bonds.

When I think about fidelity, I tend to make the grim prognosis that our culture doesn't, can't "do it" any longer (be it as it may, as Cole Porter seemed to intimate, that elephants and certain kinds of swans can). Electronic networks and imaging seduce the eyes, the thought, the heart, the imagination, and then the hours away from their rightful possessors. Our quick modes of communication allow for anonymity and nonchalance in intimate exchanges. We women have so infiltrated the workplace and the academy that each and every well-intentioned husband is daily surrounded by females who are more closely aligned than his wife with the professional interests that most immediately exhilarate and motivate him. We don't even cover our shoulders in church. The clever, mercurial spirit of the age knows exactly how to distract and deter us from the kind of fidelity that merely shows up and waits around.

Those who make and keep vows in this context have undertaken an unusual and heroic thing; maybe that's why marriage rates in the Catholic Church have fallen in my lifetime by sixty percent, or whatever it is, while our annulment tribunals increasingly recognize in the Church's members the inability to make valid vows in the first place. Perhaps we are a culture so wounded, so underdeveloped in our hearts, so jaded in our sexuality and sensibilities that we ought not to be held responsible for the promises we speak.

Against this grim little landscape is, of course, the God of Israel, the definitive covenant maker and promise keeper. In the beginning, the great creator and provider dignified His people with a role in the reciprocity which He allowed them; "if you will be faithful to me as your fathers were, do everything I command, and obey my laws...then I will establish I spoke in promise to your fathers." (II Chronicles somewhere) A righteous exchange, for a righteous people. Later, when those righteous people fail to the point of committing a kind of adultery, the divine covenant maker reveals His sorrowful but faithful heart; the bargain is gone, the covenant broken, and there is nothing left for God to say but "I will be faithful to you, and make you mine, and you will know me as the Lord." (Hosea somewhere) And then, at the end, for an uncontrite and uncovenanted people who had not even heard of His offers, the divine covenant maker reveals His very self, clinging to a lashing-post while He is flayed and bled, demonstrating the full extent of divine fidelity, loving them to the end; "herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (I John)

For God's part, the story of divine fidelity does not merely show up and stand still, containing and maintaining that which was desired. Rather, the story speeds up as it goes, urgently disclosing the full nature of the divine Person who has promised, hastening towards the vowed end, that anticipated bridal banquet. It is to the increasingly needy that He becomes most ardently faithful. It is always in our saddened, weakest state that He will show Himself most strong, in His rushing and passionate and enduring fidelity.

"Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before your face I humbly kneel and with burning soul, pray and beseech you to fix in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and love, true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment, while I contemplate with great love and tender pity your five most precious wounds..."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lucy is Enceinte

On Sunday we took a picnic to a nearby lake and parked on the shore, where we could watch the water from the interior cool, protected from the ovenlike environment that is north Texas in August. My little one perched on her daddy's lap, peering with great delight over the steering wheel; we tuned into a favorite NPR program. The topic for the day was that dear old sitcom, "I Love Lucy." In particular, the interviewer discussed the program's iconic depiction of mid twentieth century American marriage and family life.

Of particular interest was the show's depiction of Lucy's modern pregnancy, the first instance of such in the history of American television. The producers and actors had been quite nervous about this; they softened the fact of Lucy's twin-bedded pregnancy by referring to it in French ("inceinte" --that's three syllables); they called in a Catholic priest to consult on the presentation. After all, those were the days in which little girls averted their eyes from pregnant mothers seen in public, as my grandmother tells me.

I was really struck by the language and postures selected by this 1950's sitcom culture in relating the facts of being in a family way. These weren't just the days of sexual scruples and inhibitions; this was a unique time in the modern world, a situation between the dawn of mass communications on the one hand, and on the other, the changes that would come with the distortions of contraception (at the time, still illegal in many parts of the United States) and the legalized crime of abortions.

What most interests me are the smaller changes that have influenced our attitude towards early motherhood and fragile, newly conceived babies since that time. In our times, our mores tend to be shaped by our technologies. Hence in a world where early human life is so easily destroyed and discarded by our machinations, we find ourselves speaking so tentatively about it. We don't say "babies;" rather we say "embryo," or "fetus," or worse, we refer generically to "the pregnancy." We don't announce the fact of a new human life with the ready joy that it deserves; we wait long months until we announce the fact of conception, constrained by sterile medical definitions of "viability."

(I understand that it may be an act of prudence to refrain from early announcement, if the mother fears the chance of miscarriage and would like to protect her privacy. But a most beautiful mother I know has announced all of her ten pregnancies right away- including the seven that she was able to carry to term- as an act of honor and celebration for each little one, in a gesture that I think very much befits the crazy, courageous generosity of motherhood in general)

...and finally, our culture has a funny way of treating the mother- in -waiting like an incubator; she is told patronizingly that for the nine painful, emotional, highly involved months of her baby's gestation, she is merely a "mother to be." Give me a break.

In contrast, the seemingly innocent, constrained culture of the "I Love Lucy" millieu (twin beds, pearls, vacuum cleaners) presents a much, much more robust embrace of little ones, of sexuality, of humanity. In those days, there seemed to be a simpler recognition of the facts of life: a tiny human person was recognized as just that- a tiny human person. He or she was not deemed to be anything else. The baby's mother was also just that- the mother. And the same for the father. Alive and well, a growing, unborn "baby," with "parents" to protect and provide. And so we see in the language of the first scripted announcement of a pregnancy, at the dawn of modern media. You can watch it here. All so blunt, so uninhibited. Lucy is "having a baby." As soon as she knows, she goes to tell her husband. There's no reticence; she tells Ethel about her urgency to announce, and then the announcement is made in celebratory song, at Ricky Ricardo's nightclub. He exclaims to the crowd of unprivate strangers, "I am a father!" He sings, "we're having a baby, my baby and me." No hedging around with fetal viability. No mincing with the idea of prospective "parents to be." No cordoning off the baby's unborn life, lest it interfere with the privacy of others. Lucy is enceinte; that means there is a "baby," and that baby has jubilant "parents." The little one is "expected" by all, only in the sense that anyone "expected" regarding their arrival, already fully exists, and is already acknowledged, invited, rejoiced over.

We've come a long way from the culture of that sitcom, the NPR program continued. In one particular regard, the modern wives and mothers that crazy Lucy anticipated have been liberated into a whole new nexus of desires and opportunities. And yet at the same time, the way we think of ourselves has digressed into a strange agnosticism, such that we have come to speak ambivalently, and so very prudishly, about our very selves, even in the midst of our newly available opportunities. We are women, with nuptial and fecund meaning inscribed in our bodies, not workplace agents with a dibilitating susceptibility to fertility. If and when we become pregnant, we are then and there fully engaged *mothers*; we are not warming ovens with morning sickness. And the little ones conceived within and from us are little *babies*, developing onwards from the moment of their conceptions into the bouncing, teething, triumphant little tots they will become.

...this may all be a study in semantics merely, but I don't really think so. The seemingly prudish and innocent culture of the I Love Lucy era displays a kind of primal freedom that we in our modern "liberation" have lost. Lucy may have had to wear pearls and high heels to do her housework, but she had not been so confused by the modern world as to second guess the facts of life.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


My breviary describes Mt. Carmel as "the lovely place where the prophet dwelt in service to the word of expresses a sense of the beauty, prayer, and silence that characterize Mary, the Mother of our Redeemer."

A few days ago, I pulled an old scrap book off the shelf and recalled that I had once been to Mt. Carmel, on a summer journey when I was sixteen with my mother, and my brother, and an old friend. In my photos we are suntanned and windblown and happy, and distracted; my journal records being under awed with the holy place, and being more enchanted with the pleasures of the company, and the day, and the charms of a rugged countryside. Perhaps there was little of the "beauty, prayer, and silence" of the Redeemer's mother in my heart then...and perhaps there is only a little more now...but the symbol of Carmel remains the same, calling us to the high place where our God takes us as we are, accepts whatever we've got to give to Him; "on my holy mountain...there I will accept them, and I will claim your tributes and the first fruits of your offerings, and all that you dedicate." (Ezekiel 20)

Those who wear the medieval brown scapular particularly celebrate Mt. Carmel today. In the ancient time, our Lady appeared to a humble monk of the order dedicated to the holiness of Carmel, offering to him a little symbol of faith; "a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, a pledge of peace." The scapular was and is God's gift to us; He is always giving us things. But it is also a potent symbol of our gifts to Him. Worn on the body, it can signify a certain childlike humility, an act of renunciation of one's own merits and strengths, a symbol of the total offering of the self to the Savior. Our ultimate gift, the whole gift of ourselves, signified in a little brown thing. And what dignity is lent to us in this: we teeny, tiny folk have something to give to God.

I have given some things to God. I have given Him grubby things, small in sacrifice, things diminished by my laziness and inconsistency. I have given Him things rash and ill-advised, more acts of raw and unformed zeal than perfect love. In truth I have never given to Him a gift that is perfect, timely, rounded out with all the contours of the virtues, properly motivated and complete. I'm not capable of it. It is only once in His receiving hands that my gifts are made fit for Him. He is the great Recipient. He makes all things beautiful in His time.

In this way, the grace and mercy of God is best comprehended not in the facile idea that "Christ has given all, I've got nothing left to offer," nor even in the hope that God might restore and return that which we've given up. I think that God's mercy is most strikingly known in the promise that He will receive what I try to give to Him. "He will accept, He will claim." And therein, He will transform, He will redeem. And all of this for the broken things we offer up, the haphazard works of cooperation, the mistaken selections, the little efforts, the smudged sacrifices, the daily moments that, even in our mistaken judgments and in our zealous foibles, come to signify the giving of our whole selves.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Fellowship of His Suffering

"I want to know Christ, and the fellowship of His sufferings." Philippians 3

There is a whole Catholic lingo surrounding the problem of suffering. As often happens, this lingo refers to a whole, deep, profound theology about the nature of things. But to me in my charmed life it has been a lingo merely- a friend's lighthearted statement of intention "to offer it up" when her children are unruly, for instance. It sounds so economical. And while it has been deeply consoling to believe that there is some meaning, even some redemption behind the experience of my stubbed toe or my hurt feelings- or more profoundly, the hunger of my neighbor's children- I think it has never before fully sunk in that suffering can be a gift. That is to say, I've given this proposal the assent of faith. Really, though, I never believed it; I've felt closest to the Lord in a cool, clean swimming pool. But suffering, I think I am learning, is just as St. Paul puts it, the grace of fellowship with Christ- near, intimate fellowship, the kind that is costly and messy and hugely inconvenient and out of the way.

It's true that there is also a lovely, robust fellowship in joy, and our Lord is a laughing, risen Lord. When we sing "thine is the glory, risen conquering son," the undercurrent of our sympathy is a hurrah indeed- truly, ours in Him is the glory, the strut of a risen and conquering people. And it's all true- about Him, and about us- He is risen, we are risen with Him in baptism, we wait in hope. And everyone wants to be friends with the winner.

On the other hand, there is no natural fellowship in suffering. Maybe that's the hardest thing about it. Pain hurts, but it's the disconcerting perplexity and exhaustion that hurts most. Pain tends to disarm and alienate the person from his own thoughts and his own feelings, to the extent that "lovers and friends stand afar off" because the man of sorrows himself is put out of himself by his sorrow. Bewildered and confused by the nerves or the brain chemistry that bid us fight or fly from our pain, we are left with nothing to say, no conversation, nothing to offer. The time when things hurt the most is the time when we must be left alone. For the mother in the labor of childbirth, for the friend with a broken bone, for the daughter mourning a loss...there is no sharing of the deeply, uniquely personal experience of a personal agony.

This, I think must be the grace of suffering. In His human condition, Christ suffered alone. The ancient fathers insisted that in His purity and perfection, His loneliness and pain became the maximal instances of both. And it is in our own lonely suffering that we touch something of that which He endured alone, and hence, in our own experience, we get to share with Him that which no one else has ever shared. When we rejoice with Him, we stand with the whole joyous throng that He has won; but when I suffer with Him, it is my unique and unrepeatable and lonely pain that I know, and that He as God knows, as no one else can. It is precisely because I must suffer alone that in my suffering I enjoy the richest fellowship with my God, the man of sorrows. He alone is the friend who is nearer than the brother.

There is a precedent for this. The mother of the One who would suffer was quite closely united to Him already- by the affinity of supernatural grace, by proximity, by physiology. And yet the prophecy goes that even for her there was something more to be shared with Him, the otherwise isolated experience of suffering, which is otherwise impossible to share. The prophecy of Simeon proclaims a novelty, a new thing of intimacy in the human experience, an aspect of the Incarnation: "a sword will pierce your heart also." Here, for Mary, as for all times and all people, the merely human heart is to be united to that of the Trinity, in the shared experience of utter isolation.

"Your heart also." Catholic culture portrays the immaculate heart of Mary having been pierced with little spiky symbols, peeping through her flowers. We recall that she is alone at the Cross, and yet not alone, in the way that it is Christ alone who gives Himself for us, and yet He is not alone either. He is joined by all those who "make up in their bodies that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ," who thereby live nearer to Him, in the ontological nearness that is requisite for our redemption.

Yes, I "add" my little sufferings to His. If my salvation and that of the whole world is accomplished by union with the Savior, then the union that is realized in my lonely suffering brings about my healing and, by extension, that of the composite brokenness of the world. The cross is not the site of a lonely death; it is the Tree of Life. It is, in the mind of the ancients, a fecund marriage bed. Having been invited into the place where none can otherwise go, in the fellowship of His suffering my suffering becomes the irreplaceable site where I meet Jesus, just the two of us. I am made new by that nearness. And here I maintain and renew fellowship with others through forgiveness, removing a just burden from them, and losing it in that abyss of mercy that was the suffering of God.

I want to know Him, in the fellowship of His suffering.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Caves of Forgotten Dreams

My husband and baby daughter and I crept into Werner Herzog's latest film last night, and we were enchanted. Herzog can create and capture magic. It takes a little patience on both ends, but I love that in this film he is willing to teach me how to connect the soulful images left long ago by passionate, drum-beating people, with the passion of the somewhat clumsier modern folk who scan, synthesize, and study the same images on their modern technology, and then go home to dream of lions. When my little one started to sing along with Herzog's kind, lulling voice, we crept out a little early, but every curve of those cave walls, every undulation of the human face in response to quiet brush strokes stays with me...

I thought of a lot of things while watching this film. How striking that even in a primal subsistence culture that was necessarily more utilitarian than ours, humanity paused to express itself in the leisurely pursuit of beauty for it's own sake. How unsurprising that such a creature can pause, successfully, to reflect upon and worship it's creator. How logical the proposal that we were *meant* to do so.

And I thought of the secret within every person for that particular participation in and with the Creator, where truth is lived out, where art is made. As a mother, I thought of that place where primal little infant people dance in hidden places to the drum-like rythm of a heartbeat. I remember our first golden little sonograms of our baby in her primal little cave, in the womb; I was struck then by the sheer holiness of that quiet, hidden place where something is made for it's own sake, and for God's. So purely artistic. Such aimless, perfect recreation.

Herzog's team stoops and grunts gracelessly enough to enter the Chauvet Cave. Once inside, it must have required gymnastics to achieve such beautiful camera work from the awkward crowding on their aluminum platform. But once there, Herzog asks his crew for total silence so they can "hear the cave," and perhaps also their own heartbeats. The silence feels a little stilted at first. For audience and filmmaker alike, it has got to take a lot of work to really enter a space like that, and then to recollect the self enough to really experience it. Because in its own way, it's a holy place.

May our utilitarian world recall itself to its caves of dreams...all of them.