Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What are we supposed to care about?

Apathy--acedia--my favorite of the seven deadlies, yet often so hard to identify. Where is the line between culpable laziness and sabbath calm? Between hardness of heart and holy detachment? Why is the tortoise praised, but the sloth reviled?

"Twenty Days of Apathy," Heidi Neff's recent show in Brooklyn, looks at le vice du jour through a series of striking--and unsettling--drawings and paintings. Here's what she wrote about the show:

Heidi Neffʼs search for meaning has always inspired her work, but it is increasingly hard for her to know what she is supposed to care about.

Through sources such as CNN Breaking News, we get constant
reminders that people are dying in wars and natural disasters alongside celebrity gossip. Britney Spearsʼ latest breakdown gets equal weight with a tsunami that killed over 170,000 people.

Neffʼs paintings based on illuminated manuscripts seek to explore and reflect this conundrum by putting Internet-based headlines and news stories within a more intimate context.

Her most recent drawings and paintings juxtapose headlines and to-do lists or other diaristic drawings of non-eventful days. By doing this, she hopes to expose her own apathy and possibly find a way out of it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Slow Medicine: a humane approach to parent care

The death of my friend Lucille this month brought back lots of memories. Not only of her years of illness, hospitalizations, chemotherapy, and final days, but also the long decline of my mother-in-law (pictured at right, with my daughter Heidi), who died nearly six years ago, and that of my parents, who died in 1995.

Lucille had cancer; my family members had Alzheimer's, strokes, a broken hip, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, and pneumonia. Though each situation has its own set of problems, caregivers all ask certain basic questions: What do our beloved seniors need from us? Where can we turn for help? How can we work with health-care providers to add to their comfort and contentment--and how can we prevent medical technology from adding to their pain and fear?

Millions of Boomers are asking these questions, and publishers have (of course) noticed. For an introduction to the newest and best books on parent care, check Marcia Z. Nelson's excellent review on beliefnet. I was intrigued by the subtitle of Dennis McCullough's My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing "Slow Medicine," the Compassionate Approach to Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones, so I checked the book out of the public library and read through it today.

Slow medicine, as you've no doubt figured out, is a term inspired by the slow food movement's emphasis on relationships and natural processes and savoring. "Slow medicine's ultimate goal," writes McCullough, a physician and geriatrician, "is a practical and qualitative change in care directed by a more complete respect for and fuller understanding of the particularity of each late-life elder. This practice calls for using the allotted time health professionals (and families) spend with our aging parents differently and making better, more appropriate decisions more slowly and over a more extended period of time" (1-2, italics in original).

It's an attractive concept, and McCullough puts flesh on it by interspersing extremely practical tips--bulleted for easy understanding and reference--with touching stories about his own mother's final years as well as those of many of his clients. This book is a valuable guide to the aging process and a wise counselor for any of us whose parents are past 80.

Even for Mr Neff, whose amazing 87-year-old father drove from Arizona to Michigan last month to meet us for a family reunion, taking the long way home through South Dakota because he'd never seen Mount Rushmore.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lucille Leonard, 1925-2008, resting in peace

My friend Lucille died last Thursday. She had just turned 83, and she had been fighting cancer for several years. Her friends and family gave her a big birthday bash when she turned 80, thinking she wouldn't live out the year. She fooled us.

Lucille's faith was pietistic and evangelical, bordering on fundamentalist. A devout Anglophile, she fell in love with the high-church services at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and became an Episcopalian five years ago, just before the controversy over Bishop Robinson shattered the Anglican peace. For many months she wavered. She felt she couldn't stay in a denomination whose theology she abhorred, but neither could she leave the liturgy she loved or her friends and the pastoral staff, all of whom she knew to be deeply Christian. Eventually she joined an evangelical Anglican parish, the Church of the Resurrection, where she made new friends without losing the old.

Meanwhile Lucille's husband died, she moved into a new apartment building (where she made still more friends), and she had surgery to remove a lobe of her lung, which contained some malignant tumors. The doctors thought all the cancer was gone. Then, at a routine check-up, some spots were discovered on her liver. Lucille and I began making regular visits to an oncologist's office and a chemotherapy clinic (where, of course, she continued to make friends).

The names chosen by Lucille's two churches reflect her personality and deep faith. Like St. Barbabas, she was an encourager. That, along with her oft-expressed gratitude, is why she had so many friends. And she wholeheartedly believed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. She knew that to die was to be with him. She had no fear of death itself, but she hoped she would not have to die alone.

Click here to read a moving account of Lucille's last hours by her friend Barbara Gauthier, a prayer minister at the Church of the Resurrection, who held her hand as she passed peacefully to her rest.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Resurrection, body and soul

Four months ago I mentioned a pre-publication review of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson. Since then our rabbi gave Mr Neff a copy of the book, which I've now read. It's a fine study of the resurrection of the body, particularly in the Hebrew Bible and subsequent rabbinic teachings.

Here are a couple of gems about the unity of the person, as taught in the early centuries of the common era:

Whatever notions of the soul circulated in ancient Judaism, in rabbinic theology God was not thought to have fulfilled his promises until the whole person returned, body included. Like death, a disembodied existence was deemed to be other than the last word, for the person is not 'the ghost in the machine' (that is, the body) but rather a unity of body and soul. (204)

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus go to some pains to argue against a view of salvation that is understood strictly in terms of the survival or salvation of the soul.... As the orthodox saw it, the texture of humanity was a seamless, indivisible work of art, composed of flesh and soul--very much like the view of the rabbis we examined in the previous chapter. God will reward the blessed, body and soul. . . . Only if the whole person, both elements of which were created by God, were raised could humanity be redeemed and justice achieved. (233)
And here's a thought-provoking observation about why so many contemporary people do not believe in a literal resurrection of the body:

The major change has been widespread skepticism about the one who performs the expected resurrection--the personal, supernatural God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who intervenes in the course of human and natural events and brings about results that are otherwise impossible. The tendency among many modern people ... has been either to doubt all claims of the existence of God or to redefine God so that the word refers to human ideals and feelings alone and not to the source of miraculous acts and providential guidance. In short, in the modern world, the idea of a God who does things has become highly problematic. And whatever else one may say about a God who does not do anything, one thing is sure: he does not resurrect the dead. (215)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Indaba to the rescue

About 3/4 of the world's Anglican bishops are meeting in Lambeth (England) this week for their decennial state-of-the-church confab. The elephant in the living room this time is the 1/4 of the world's Anglican bishops who are pointedly staying away, having already met in Jerusalem to complain about the direction the Western church is heading.

Reporter Douglas LeBlanc explains how the Lambeth bishops hope to keep the peace: "Instead of meeting in plenary session, bishops will gather in 'indaba' groups (this Zulu word, the conference website explains, 'refers to a small group that gathers, without time pressures and constraints, to 'chew over' important issues')."

As the sun sets on the British empire, perhaps the bishops should note that Indaba is also the name of a South African winery. If the Church of England isn't one's cup of tea, one need only recall that "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, / There's music and laughter and good red wine . . . "

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hybrid vigor

Byron, my Texas-born son-in-law, used to sing “I’m a Methodist Till I Die”, until he up and joined a Vineyard Church. His Methodist mother can handle that, but she panicked when his little brother decided to marry a Catholic. So I thought I should tread carefully when Byron’s 13-year-old daughter—my granddaughter Katie, pictured above—and I walked past St. Michael’s Catholic Community last week.

“That’s my church,” I said. Her eyes widened. I’ve been a Catholic longer than she has lived, but she doesn’t always pay attention. “You know,” I bravely continued, “Catholics and Protestants used to be really different from one another, but they’re not so different anymore.” Katie attended an Episcopal church for a couple of years when her family lived in Asia. “In fact,” I plowed on, “if you went to Catholic services, you’d find they’re a lot like your church in Taipei.”

Katie chewed on that for a minute, then asked, “Is the Vineyard Church Protestant?”

I love it when religious people mix it up. At Mr Neff’s Episcopal parish, many of the pillars started out Roman Catholic. Many Catholics of my acquaintance spent several years pretending to be Protestants, often in the Pentecostal tradition. I have Presbyterian friends who know a lot about the Bible but very little about John Calvin, Catholic friends who don’t know how to say the rosary but happily sing “Amazing Grace,” Protestant friends whose main spiritual adviser is a rabbi, Baptist friends who get together with nuns to pray the liturgical hours . . .

Veterinarians looking at a similar phenomenon call it “hybrid vigor.”

The AKC, the guardians of canine orthodoxy, don’t much care for hybrids. They believe that breeds (most of which have been developed over the last century or two) should be kept distinct so that individual breed standards are preserved. According to many conscientious breeders, the increasingly popular mixed-breed “designer dogs” are an abomination.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a woman who has belonged to three different Christian denominations is all in favor of mutts. Sure, if two really fine Great Danes fall in love, their offspring will probably meet AKC standards. But when you breed for good qualities, problems often sneak in the back door. Those Great Dane puppies have a high risk for hip dysplasia, just as toy poodles are prone to progressive retinal atrophy and Maltese often have bad teeth. By contrast, though my miniature schnauzer–yorkie cross inherited a double dose of the barking gene, her health is excellent, as is that of her lap-sitting shih-tzu–toy poodle sister.

I’m glad my extended family includes Protestants and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews, the devout and the agnostic. (So far we don’t have any Hindus, Muslims, or Orthodox Christians at our Thanksgiving tables, but we have a few extra chairs if any show up.) Catholic piety, Calvinist theology, post-modern skepticism, Episcopal inclusiveness, evangelical certainty—these are all good things, but you don’t want any of them to get out of hand. Hybrid vigor isn’t just for dogs.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Someone you should know: Dame Frevisse

Margaret Frazer, The Apostate's Tale (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2007)

By the time I was reading book 3 in the now 17-book Dame Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, I was hooked. Mr Neff quickly followed suit, and you can be sure that when Mr Neff and I both like a book, it’s really good.

The books

Frevisse is a 15th-century nun at St. Frideswide’s priory in Oxfordshire, England. As the niece-by-marriage of Geoffrey Chaucer’s son Thomas and cousin to his daughter Alice, Countess of Suffolk—actual historical characters, by the way—Dame Frevisse rides out of the nunnery surprisingly often, inadvertently getting involved in affairs of state, church politics, and even smuggling. Some of the best tales, though, take place at the priory itself. Practicing hospitality as enjoined by the Benedictine rule, the nuns open their gates to all comers, providing them with food and a place to stay. In turn, the guests offer gifts, adventure, and sometimes mayhem.

In 1431, when the series begins (The Novice's Tale), Frevisse is a thirtyish no-nonsense good-hearted woman who loves tradition and tends to get involved in other people’s problems—a lot like our other favorite heroine, Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Both series stretch the definition of mystery: the crime rarely happens in the early chapters, and in some books nobody gets killed at all. Both are full of local color. And though both protagonists are intensely practical, both also think a lot about moral and ethical questions. In The Apostate's Tale, Dame Frevisse butts heads with a shameless narcissist.

The story begins during Holy Week 1452. Cecely, a runaway nun, has returned to St. Frideswide’s with her young bastard son in tow. At the same time, the ailing mother of one of the sisters arrives. In quick succession follow a businessman and two servants, several members of Cecely’s late paramour’s family, a mother and daughter who differ as to the value of the monastic life, and eventually the Abbot and his retinue. With few winter food stores remaining and not many provisions available in the nearby village, the nine resident nuns wonder how they will manage to accommodate so many guests. And then a would-be murderer strikes—and strikes again. No wonder the prioress has a nervous breakdown.

The authors

Margaret Frazer is the pen name of two women who began the series, mystery writer Mary Monica Pulver and amateur archeologist/historian Gail Frazer. They met at the Society for Creative Anachronism, became friends, and wrote the first six Dame Frevisse novels together. Then Pulver went on to other pursuits and Frazer continued the series on her own—while repeatedly battling cancer.

With Frazer as the sole author, the books have moved closer to the thin line separating period mysteries from historical fiction. Frazer loves research. One of her pet peeves, she said in an interview, is writers who rely on clichés about life in the middle ages (“streets deep in filth,” constant “lawless violence”), “who play fast and loose with facts to make their story-telling easier.” Frazer takes pains to make the Priory of St. Frideswide historically accurate, and Frevisse’s participation in the Benedictine life of prayer rings true.

Soul and body

More than any of the previous books in the series, Apostate slips into Dame Frevisse’s soul as she prays, sings the daily office, and goes about her work. Book 10, The Squire's Tale, foreshadowed this book's spiritual sensitivity with this lovely paragraph about the liturgical hours:

Frevisse ... sank into her own familiar place, made sure of her breviary and Psalter in front of her, then slid forward to kneel in prayer until everyone was in place and the Office began, continuing the unending weave of prayers and psalms begun years into centuries ago and never ceasing, prayed and sung by so many women and men in so many places, their lives given to the prayers and petitions and their lives lost to all memory but God's, that sometimes it seemed to Frevisse that here and now this hands-count of nuns no more made the prayers than someone made a river: they simply stepped into the endless flow, to be carried by it the way a river carried whatever came into its way. (41)
In Apostate, Frevisse’s theological and mystic musings take center stage as she enters the church and joins in the prayer of the church:

Here was the reason for all else. All the duties and rules and limits of her life were for this—these times of prayer when she could reach beyond life’s limits toward God and joy and the soul’s freedom. (35)

Despite her mysticism, Frevisse is realistic and unsentimental about the religious life. She explains to another sister that she hasn’t been given the gift of holiness, and that she doesn’t expect to achieve it in this life:

My hope isn’t for holiness, only that I grow enough—can set my roots of faith and belief and love deep enough—that like a deep-rooted plant growing taller than a shallow-rooted one, I finally come as near to God in my mind and soul and heart as I can, no matter how much in the world my body has to be. (125)

Not that she discounts the importance of her earthbound body. In typical medieval fashion, she values asceticism rather more than we do today, but she also accepts her body’s needs. Up for prayer in the middle of a cold night,

shivering as she went, she thought wryly of how strongly the body fought to prevail over the mind’s soul-longing. Whatever her mind’s intent, her body did not want the cold church and more prayer; it wanted the warm kitchen and more sleep, wanted them very badly. . . . Only for a saint, she supposed, would the desire for God be so great they could not only forgo but even forget the body’s desires. She also thought, equally wryly, that if that were the way of it, she was assuredly very far from sainthood. (54–55)

Such practical realism is typical of most of the sisters at St. Frideswide’s, with the exception of the maddeningly ethereal Dame Thomasine. Eventually even she admits to fatigue. “You haven’t been kind to your body, you know,” the ever-direct Dame Frevisse tells her.

And yet our bodies are God’s gift to us. Shouldn’t we treat them with at least a little pity, with a little kindness, in what little time they have to be alive? . . . Our flesh is the vessel that carries the fire of God’s love. You have no right to break your body, either on purpose or through plain carelessness. (233–34)

Still, these are not books of theology. The characters are well developed, and the stories are entertaining even after a hard day’s work. At first I thought Dame Frevisse would be a pale imitation of the hearty Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century Benedictine monastic who similarly pursues murderers and hangs out with a herbalist. The more I read, the more I preferred Dame Frevisse. Simultaneously flawed and virtuous, she’s believably wise and delightfully opinionated, and she deserves her own TV series. Thanks to the Britain’s ITV, Derek Jacobi is Brother Cadfael. I’ve always thought Queen Latifah would make a fine Mma Ramotswe. But who should be cast as the forthright Dame Frevisse--it's a mystery. Nominations?

Learn more

News article about Gail Frazer:

Interview with Frazer:

Frazer's own website:

Plot summaries with spoilers:

Book descriptions: