Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Of the quantity of drink

"Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that" (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina* of wine a day is sufficient for each one. But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence, let them know that they will have their special reward.

If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer's heat should require more, let that depend on the judgment of the Superior, who must above all things see to it, that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.

Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly; because "wine maketh even wise men fall off" (Sir 19:2). But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less, or none at all, let those who live there bless God and murmur not.

This we charge above all things, that they live without murmuring.

Holy Rule of St. Benedict, chapter XL

*A hemina is equal to half a sextary. Now you know.
(A sextary is probably about the same as a British pint, or 20 ounces.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Green Leaves of Summer

“Is That All There Is” is one interpretation of Ecclesiastes (“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot,” 5:18).

“The Green Leaves of Summer” is another Ecclesiastes song from the sixties, and I like it better even if (or perhaps because) it’s schmaltzy. You can see a rough but poignant performance by the elderly Brothers Four singing at the Kingston Trio’s 45th anniversary celebration here on YouTube.

In “Is That All There Is,” a young person looks ahead to death, anticipating disappointment. In “The Green Leaves of Summer,” an old person looks back at life, with gratitude, as “the green leaves of summer are calling me home.” My favorite lines:

A time to be plowin', a time to be plantin',
A time to be courtin' a girl of your own--
T'was so good to be young then, to be close to the earth,
And to stand by your wife, at the moment of birth . . .

Is that all there is?

A friend in her mid 30s tells me “Is That All There Is” is her favorite song. She especially likes the part about dancing and breaking out the booze and having a ball.

I was about 21 when Peggy Lee made the song famous. I didn’t like its theme, that every emotionally charged experience—even death—is bound to disappoint. I wanted to be more than dust on its way to ashes. When Peggy started singing, I would flip the dial.

But I knew then, and I know even more now, how a person could feel like that. Often enough, especially in late winter with yet another storm on its way, that’s exactly how things seem.

So, if that’s all there is, should we drink and dance? Probably, at least on weekends, and if we can party without destroying our health or driving drunk.

But what if that isn’t all there is? What if we are more than dust of the ground? What if an essential part of our human nature is a spiritual component that goes far beyond what we experience with our physical senses?

Well then, dancing and drinking may still be a good response (see caveats above). What religion doesn’t celebrate joyful feasts—not because that is all there is, but because, in the words of the Nicene Creed, God is the “maker of . . . all that is, seen and unseen”?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Books and films that break your heart

I don't much like little books of canned devotions, whether topical, annual, or penitential (never mind that I've written several). Novels and journalistic accounts and films are often a better way of reminding myself that I am dust and ashes. Here are some engrossing, heartbreaking accounts from places where hunger and death are part of everyone's daily experience. All are current and available from Amazon.

Dave Eggers, What Is the What (Sudan)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria: Biafra)
Athol Fugard, Tsotsi (South Africa)
Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Afghanistan)

Greg Mortenson/David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea (Pakistan)
Ǻsne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul (Afghanistan)
Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains (Haiti)

God Grew Tired of Us (Sudan)
The Devil Came On Horseback (Sudan)
Tsotsi (South Africa)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Year of the Goat

When my daughter Molly was four, I took her with me to a choir rehearsal. Practicing for a Messiah performance, we were paying particular attention to “All We Like Sheep.” Molly listened to us sing that line repeatedly for several minutes. Finally, in exasperation, she whispered, “Actually, some of us prefer goats.”

One thing for sure: Molly was no sheep. We used to say that her stubbornness had a bright side: nobody would ever be able to lead her astray. And nobody did. Her husband calls me a contrarian. It may run in the family.

In any case, I’ve recently read two delightful accounts of life with goats. Thanks to friend Amy Tracy for pointing out a Slate article by dog-writer Jon Katz, “Getting My Goat” (“My three goats won’t stop jeering me, and I love them for it”). And for those who want more information on where their goat cheese comes from, Margaret Hathaway is both entertaining and informative in The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese (thanks to John Wilson for this tip). From the Publishers Weekly review: “Local-eating, slow-food activists will find much to chew on here.”

Almost Catholic

Today’s interesting read: Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice, and Mystery of Ancient Faith by colleague and friend Jon M. Sweeney.

Jon, like Thomas Howard a generation ago, is a cradle evangelical turned Episcopalian. When I was confirmed by an Episcopal bishop in 1982, Tom happened to be visiting my parish. After the service he said to me, “Welcome to this branch of the Catholic church.” Tom’s last book, published the year before he became fully Catholic in 1985, was titled Evangelical Is Not Enough. I wonder if Jon is on the same path.

Jon, like Tom, loves liturgy and literature. He practices assorted spiritual disciplines with an attentiveness foreign to most cradle Catholics. His notes include more novelists and poets than theologians—Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Hijuelos, Walker Percy, Richard Crashaw, and many others.

Unlike Tom, however, Jon has little time for hierarchy, favors experience over doctrine, and never mentions the Magisterium. Jon’s Catholicism is neither liberal nor lite (he apparently likes the current pope and is quite smitten with the catechism, stances Catholic liberals rarely take), but it is definitely post-modern. He tells us where he stands, makes no claims for absolute truth, shares with us his loves, and does all of this using words and forms harking back to venerable ecclesiastical traditions.

Sometimes feeling more like a collection of columns than a book, Almost Catholic offers interesting observations on topics ranging from the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the meaning of hell. The physical expression of spiritual experience—what Jon calls “the carnality of faith”—is a theme running throughout. Quoting Tertullian’s assertion that Jesus “loved his own flesh,” he comments:

To love our flesh as Jesus loved his own is to fill the physical events, stuff, interactions of life with spiritual meaning because they are indeed full of meaning. We can wash the dishes, repair shoes, prepare and eat a feast, and love doing these things—not because we’ve turned our mind elsewhere but because Christ showed us that physical life is marvelous. (75–76)

I am surprised at how little emphasis Jon gives the Eucharist. His “eleven steps to becoming a truly Catholic Christian” mention it obliquely, if at all—and yet, as Jon says when he finally brings it up in one of the last chapters, “there is nothing more central to Catholic faith than the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (200). That short chapter, called “Kissing and Eating,” makes a compelling case for gathering with other Christians for corporate worship.

Like Jon, I was “almost Catholic” for many years. I too loved liturgy and sacrament. Eventually, however, I felt that almost wasn’t enough, and I was confirmed by a Catholic priest. Jon writes, “Even as I envy the habits of devotion that often characterize the cradle Catholic, I can also see how being almost Catholic may even be preferable” (209). Well, a lot of people think being “almost married” is preferable to actually saying those vows, too—but is it even possible to be almost married, or almost Catholic? Or is Catholicism, like marriage, best understood by actually participating in it, risking diminished romance, multiplied struggles, and probable heartache? Jon's observations from the outside looking in are welcome and helpful. Should he someday decide to go totally Catholic, the church will be the richer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Midlife sensory banquet

On our recent trip to see relatives in Arizona, I was frequently reminded of the different ways people take in information. According to the MBTI, people tend to be Sensors or Intuitives. Sensors gather information through their five senses. They are alert, observant, curious, often detail oriented. They are not likely to trip and fall over the coffee table simply because their housemate rearranged the living room—they go through life with their eyes open, living in the moment.

Intuitives, by contrast, seem to spend more time in the romantic past or imagined future than in the present. The visible world is, for them, a launching pad for theories, inventions, schemes, interpretations, ideas, brainstorms, patterns, theologies, impressions, connotations, imagination, dreams, possibilities . . . and with all of that buzzing in their brains, no wonder they occasionally forget to come in out of the rain.

If the human person is a combination of earth and spirit, the Sensor is likely to pay more attention to earth, the Intuitive to spirit. My husband and I and both our daughters lean toward spirit, while most of our relatives are solidly earth-based. We listened in awe last week as they talked extremely knowledgeably about minerals, gems, fossils, photovoltaic cells, cacti, reservoirs, beer making, jewelry design, energy conservation, rare birds, rock polishers, and on and on. These people see what’s in front of them, understand it, and know what to do with it.

As one relative, recently married into the tribe, said (referring to several cousins who are artisans and inventors): “Creativity runs in the family.” Then, turning to David, she asked, “Are you creative?”

I was startled. As a person with Intuitive leanings, I tend to think of creativity as relating to ethereal pursuits. A novelist is creative, as is an artist. David, a journalist and a musician, is creative in several areas. But unlike his creative cousins, he doesn’t often make things that can be seen, held, and manipulated, so a Sensor may not immediately see his creativity. Similarly, an Intuitive may not immediately see the creativity of the person who enjoys finding rocks, splitting them, and polishing their inner surfaces to reveal layers of sparkling color.

Sensors and Intuitives open up and enrich each other’s experience. This is especially true after age 40 or so, when Sensors get more interested in possibilities and Intuitives begin noticing the physical world. My metamorphosis began when, 20 years ago, an interior designer pointed out the flame stitch on a chair’s upholstery. Before then, I noticed whether a chair was red or blue, and I could tell the difference between leather and cloth or solid and floral. The flame stitch, however, was a revelation. Suddenly I began seeing it everywhere. I fell in love with it. I even started noticing other differences in texture and design.

The sensory banquet soon expanded to include food as well as upholstery. The girl who hated to cook started turning into the woman who enjoyed experimenting with taste and color combinations at the table. Every time my aged mother would come to dinner, she would look at her plate and say, “I can’t believe it. I never thought you’d be able to do this.”

Eventually I started noticing things my Sensor friends had known all their lives: for instance, that a dog is a much better companion if you train it and bathe it, or that a house can look really good if you put things away when you’re done using them.

Being an Intuitive, I’m not really sure what Sensors start discovering at midlife. I’m sure they have every bit as much fun as we Intuitives do. Maybe even more, since we keep can’t help thinking about the Next Big Thing, whereas they know how to savor the moment. All of us, though, can find joy in the improbable recipe for the human person. We are earth, and we are spirit, each ingredient equally vital to our humanity.

MBTI--a little background

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was extremely popular in the 80s, when the younger Boomers were trying to decide what to do and whom (or if) to marry and the older Boomers were afraid that, having passed the dreaded age of 30, they might actually turn 40 and have a midlife meltdown. Boomer that I am, I got very interested in this taxonomy of personality type, wrote One of a Kind (a book about it for parents), and led workshops for publishers.

The MBTI looks at three aspects of personality: what energizes us, how we gather information, and how we make decisions. In addition, it looks at whether we prefer gathering information or acting on it. Put these four factors together, and you get more than the sum of the parts—you get a fairly detailed and often uncannily accurate description of sixteen different kinds of people.

Of course, there aren’t really sixteen kinds of people, there are only two: those who love personality tests and those who think they are bogus.
Well, maybe there are three types, if you include mine: those who love personality tests and think they are bogus if believed too implicitly or taken too far.

Still, such tests can help a lot of us sharpen our powers of observation. It’s easy to think everyone is either just like us or exactly opposite from us, without realizing that there’s a whole zoo of fascinating people out there who are simply other than us. A friend of mine, a highly prolific novelist, once told me she uses the MBTI to help create believable characters. It helps her maintain variety in her cast of characters, and it keeps her from unwittingly making an individual do something that a person with his or her personality simply wouldn’t do.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Year of the Rat

According to the Chinese Zodiac, the Year of the Rat began February 7. I am a Rat, as are my second-born daughter and my second-born granddaughter. Grandgirl Susan says she will have a child in 2020 so as to maintain the Rat line in our family for four generations. To learn more than you want to know about Rats—who, I humbly note, are “blessed with one of the best intellects going”—click on this link.

I am sending Susan a children’s novel by Grace Lin, The Year of the Rat. Here is how chapter 1 ends:

“You know,” [Mom said,] “since the Year of the Rat is the first year of the next twelve-year cycle, it symbolizes new beginnings.”
“And that means changes,” Melody’s mom said, and she gave her family a funny look I didn’t understand. “The Year of the Rat is the time to make a fresh start and to change things.”
Melody and I looked at each other. She had a weird look on her face. I felt confused. Changes? I liked the way things were right now. What was going to happen in the Year of the Rat?

Change is part of what it means to be human. During Lent we hear readings like “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6). But not all change is gloomy. Isaiah goes on to tell Israel that their fortunes are about to change for the better: “I am about to do a new thing,” God says (43:19).

Congratulations to three of my good friends whose changes so far in this Year of the Rat are delightful.

  • A., who was accepted into a doctoral program at a major university
  • E., who bought a condo with cherry wood floors and a magnificent view
  • J., who will be received into the Catholic Church on Thursday

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Multinational minerals

.This is a row of bowls made from polished stone. They are so thin as to be translucent, and the sun reflects off them as if they were made of water.

We are in Tucson, and today we walked through booth after booth at the annual gem and mineral show. My father-in-law and his wife love rocks--gems, though they don't wear jewelry; fossils, though they don't believe in evolution. They just love to look at, hold, and sometimes own beautiful things.

They are not alone. People come to this show from all over the world, some to sell, some to buy. One year we bought amber from Poland; the next year, garnets from Alaska. This year we didn't buy anything, but we admired rubies from Thailand and Myanmar. The bowls in the picture were made in India.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Flourless chocolate cakelets

Last night's feast went well, but the flourless chocolate cake turned out dry and uninteresting. So this afternoon I adapted the recipe and tried again. This time it worked beautifully. Here's what it looked like, and here's how to do it.

Makes six (four, two) individual cakes in ½ cup custard cups or ramekins. You could stretch the 6-serving recipe to fill 8 ramekins if you have plenty of fresh berries and you are serving this after a large meal.
dark chocolate (bittersweet or semi-sweet)
stick unsalted butter
sugar, or a bit less
large egg(s)
unsweetened cocoa powder (dark is best)
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter each ramekin, cover the bottom (but not the sides) of each with a circle of waxed paper, and butter the waxed paper.
  • Chop chocolate into small pieces. Put it with butter in a large glass measuring cup or small, microwave-safe mixing bowl. Microwave briefly and gently until the chocolate and butter have almost melted. Be careful not to scorch them.
  • Whisk sugar into chocolate-butter mixture. Add egg(s) and whisk well. Whisk in cocoa powder. Pour batter into ramekins (it will be fairly stiff; you may have to splat it in with a spoon).
  • Bake for 12–14 minutes. You want the top to have formed a skin, but you don’t want the cakes to bake all the way through. Gloppiness is part of the fun. Besides, they will continue to bake after you remove them from the oven.
  • Cook cakes on a rack for 5 or 10 minutes. Invert them; if they don’t slide out easily, run a thin knife around the edges. Remove waxed paper.
  • Serve warm, or cover and refrigerate to serve later. In an air-tight container, they will keep for several days. They hold birthday candles well, and they look lovely if served on a dribble of sauce with berries for garnish.
Based on a recipe originally published in Gourmet (November 1997) and available at Epicurious .

Friday, February 8, 2008

Saki on grocery stores

If you enjoy Edwardian wit (think Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton), check out The Complete Saki or The Collected Short Stories of Saki.

I've had my battered Modern Library Edition for forty-five years--it was a Christmas gift from my best friend in high school--and it continues to charm. Saki is the pen name for H.H. Munro (1870-1916), a British journalist born in Burma and killed in France during World War I. His last words were "Put that damned cigarette out!"

Here are some lines from "Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business":
"It is the fashion nowadays," said Clovis, "to talk about the romance of Business. There isn't such a thing. The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn't be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself. I admit that a grocer's shop is one of the most romantic and thrilling things that I have ever happened on, but the romance and thrill are centred in the groceries, not the grocer. The citron and spices and nuts and dates, the barrelled anchovies and Dutch cheeses, the jars of caviar and the chests of tea, they carry the mind away to Levantine coast towns and tropic shores, to the Old World wharfs and quays of the Low Countries, to dusty Astrachan and far Cathay; if the grocer's apprentice has any romance in him it is not a business education he gets behind the grocer's counter, it is a standing invitation to dream and to wander, and to remain poor."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Lenten birthday feast

crudités with hummus

Martellozzo prosecco (Veneto)

potage aux patates douces

crab ravioli with shallot cream

Litorale vermentino (Maremma Toscana) 2006

risotto with porcini, cremini, & shiitake mushrooms

roasted root vegetables

L’Ecole N° 41 syrah (Columbia Valley) 2004

fromages assortis

flourless chocolate cake

Hardy’s Whiskers Blake classic tawny dessert wine


Give up carbon for Lent

Here's an idea that could do more good than fish on Fridays (though as a fish lover, I suggest fish not only on Fridays but on Wednesdays and Mondays as well)--Reduce your carbon intake for the next forty days.

This suggestion from two Church of England bishops is reported by Tearfund, a UK charity that fights global poverty on many fronts. The article includes several practical suggestions, including "snubbing plastic bags."

Merriam-Webster Online defines snub thus: "to check or stop with a cutting retort" or "to treat with contempt or neglect." Have the good bishops gone too far? Do we have to snub the bags? Will it be OK if we just politely refuse them?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mark Bittman's new blog!

My favorite all-purpose cookbook is Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. For Christmas my daughter Molly gave me How to Cook Everything Vegetarian--a worthy addition to his line. And now the New York Times columnist ("The Minimalist") and PBS star has launched a blog about food and cooking called Bitten.

"We’re going to look at great food made with everyday ingredients and readily achievable techniques," he writes, "not food as something to be admired from afar, but as a part of daily life. We’ll also bat around the big ideas that foodies sometimes ignore: how it gets produced and moved from one place to another, as well as who pays for it and profits from it."

Better yet, he's posting a daily recipe, with photos.

Ash Wednesday

You are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Genesis 3:19
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:47-49

Death-defying Christians

In one way, early Christians had a much healthier view of the body than did their pagan neighbors: they believed that love required them to take care of the physical needs of others. In fact, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, compassion for others was a major reason that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and supplanted ancient pagan religions.

Stark’s 1996 book, The Rise of Christianity, offers a fascinating discussion of early Christianity’s exponential growth rate. In chapter 4, “Epidemics, Networks, Conversion,” he quotes a letter from Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria written in about ad 260 during a major epidemic:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ. . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

In contrast,

the heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.

Paradoxically, the death-defying Christian community grew larger. According to Dionysius’s testimony (the plague’s “full impact fell on the heathen”) and Stark’s calculations, Christians who nursed the dying were far less likely to die during the epidemic than were pagans who did everything in their power to avoid getting sick.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Clarification on the virgin birth

I did not mean to imply in the previous post that Leo I invented the doctrine of the virgin birth as a way for Jesus to avoid original sin. Christians believed in the virgin birth a long time before Leo. I meant that Leo joined his belief in the sexual transmission of original sin to his belief in the virgin birth in order to show how Christ could be fully human, yet without sin.

Belief in the virgin birth of Jesus is older than belief in the sexual transmission of original sin. The virgin birth shows that Jesus' birth is even more miraculous than those of other angel-announced babies: Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist.

I think the virgin birth also links Jesus' birth to the creation of the world.

Just as Adam was created from dust and spirit, Jesus was made from a human mother and the Holy Spirit. Just as Eve was drawn out of Adam's side, Jesus was born from Mary's womb.

Christ has often been called the second Adam. St. Paul came up with the idea: see Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. The virgin birth is one way of showing that Jesus, like Adam, "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15).

Truly God, truly man

It took the Christian church more than four hundred years of constant discussion to agree to a formula explaining just how Jesus could be both God and man, without leaning too far in one direction or the other. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 issued a definition that has been accepted by most Christians ever since: Jesus is “truly God and truly man,” “consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity.”

The men who framed the Chalcedonian confession had to get past two stumbling blocks that, according to their way of thinking, made the union of God and man almost unthinkable.

First, good Hellenistic philosophers that they were, they were convinced that God is completely unchangeable. If God cannot change, he cannot suffer and he certainly cannot die. How, then, could Jesus be fully God and yet suffer and die on the cross?

Second, for reasons that I have yet to figure out, the church fathers apparently believed that all sexual pleasure is seriously sinful. A woman could conceive a child without sin, but a man could not beget a child sinlessly, and the sin of sexual pleasure transmitted original sin to the descendants of Adam and Eve. How, then, could Jesus be truly man and yet remain untainted by original sin?

Pope Leo I (the Great) came up with a way to get past both barriers. Several years before the Council of Chalcedon was convened, he had written a letter to the Bishop of Constantinople explaining how Jesus could be simultaneously God and man. His letter became known as the Tome of Leo, and the whole thing is worth reading.

Leo allowed that God might not be quite as unchangeable as the god of pagan philosophy: “The Lord of the universe veiled his measureless majesty and took on a servant's form. The God who knew no suffering did not despise becoming a suffering man, and, deathless as he is, to be subject to the laws of death.”

But Leo did not give up his belief in sexually transmitted damnation. Jesus’ birth, he wrote, was unprecedented, “because it was inviolable virginity which supplied the material flesh without experiencing sexual desire. What was taken from the mother of the Lord was the nature without the guilt.”

This is a far cry from the word of Wisdom in Proverbs 5:18–19:

Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Oddly, the church has often identified Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible with the Word in the New Testament. Even the dour old bishops did that, but they seem to have missed some of the connections. I'm still looking for early Christian writers with a wholesome, hearty, Hebrew view of sexual love.

Monday, February 4, 2008

What's real

She: Why is it that churches who serve real bread tend to believe it's only a reminder of Jesus, while churches who believe in the Real Presence tend to serve something that's only a reminder of bread?

He: It's one of life's imponderables, like why Calvinists take up free-will offerings.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

St. Blaise, healer of throats

When I was lamenting the apparent absence of festive saints in the early church, I overlooked one thing some of the early Christians did very well. Despite their willingness for the body to be hungry, tired, cold, lonely, and nonreproductive, they did not think it should be ill.

Today's patron saint, Bishop Blaise of Armenia, was a physician. OK, he was a hermit, and he lived in a cave and walked on water, so he's not quite the earthy, festive saint I'm hoping to find. Still, he must have loved the created world, because he had a widespread reputation for healing animals. Thrown in jail during one of the early-fourth-century persecutions, he also healed his fellow prisoners, including a child who was choking on a fish bone.

A few years ago in early February, I listened as our bishop told stories about St. Blaise to a group of RCIA candidates (people who are preparing to join the Catholic church). St. Blaise, he said, is the patron saint of people with throat ailments, and every year on February 3 the church offers a blessing of the throats. The bishop explained that he would use two candles to make the sign of the cross, and any of us who wished to do so could come forward for the blessing.

At that point a young red-headed electrician could stand it no longer. "Who thinks up this stuff?" he exclaimed.

A lot of saints' stories are pretty strange, and a lot of saints appear to have needed medication that hadn't been invented yet. I'm glad to know, though, that St. Blaise valued the earthly life and physical comfort of a child in distress.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Deferred gratification

I usually feel guilty unless I'm in the process of deferring gratification. My husband, who is slightly warped, says he thinks deferring gratification is fun. He suggests that Purgatory (for people like us) will be a flood of unimaginable pleasure that we will be forced to enjoy as we are experiencing it. This prospect does not terrify him, because he doesn't believe in Purgatory.

Plastic bags

According to Elisabeth Rosenthal in this morning's New York Times, plastic bags have fallen out of favor in Ireland:

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts. Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

We may be "frail creatures of dust," but apparently plastic bags last forever--and very few people recycle them. I hadn't realized this, but the other day I noticed a look of polite shock on the face of the Whole Foods cashier when I requested plastic. (I return my bags! Religiously! Except for the ones I dedicate to canine cleanliness, which is another way of protecting the environment . . . or so I thought.)

So I bought a Whole Foods cloth grocery bag made from 80% post-consumer waste (not sure what that would be: should I wash my hands after touching it?), and I plan to buy a Trader Joe bag as well, since that's where I buy most of my groceries. And I promise never to wear a fur coat while grocery shopping, and I will continue to clean up after my dogs . . .

. . . but wait, now I have a problem. Without plastic bags, what do I do with Tiggy and Muffin's post-consumer waste?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Plastic Madonna

Fifteen years ago David and I spent a couple of weeks in Italy. We wandered through church after church, noticing the same phenomenon: gorgeous chapels featuring paintings by medieval and Renaissance masters remained dark and unvisited, while banks of candles blazed before simpering Madonnas.

“Why?” wailed David (who is both an evangelical Protestant and a lover of fine art). He gestured toward a man lost in meditation before an apparently plastic statue of the Blessed Virgin.

I think I know. St. Peter's is cavernous and cold. Power is in its massive stones. Standing before the high altar, I sense a God who thunders and smites.

The little plastic girl, her arms open to embrace her children, does not belong in such a place.