Sunday, 31 March 2013

they didn't have time.....

I spent a lot of time this Lent reading. I read and reread and took copious notes on the Popcaks' book, Parenting with Grace. I read St Josemaria and Fr Jacques Philippe and the Gospel according to Saint Luke. I read chunks of the Catechism. I read a variety of marriage-related literature for the part-time work Richard and I do together in our "free time."  I read Patricia Hubbell's Trucks: Whizz, Zoom, Rumble (or something like that) about 538493749 times. Per day. Thank you, Joseph.

For the girls, I read The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie, Danny the Champion of the World, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, These Happy Golden Years, and books about turtles and books about alligators and books about slavery and books about Abraham Lincoln and books about Saints Valentine, Patrick and Francis....but most importantly, this Lent we read so many books about the Passion and Resurrection.

From all the reading I accomplished over 40 days (and good portions of the 40 nights), I learned a lot! I learned that the quality of my parenting is not defined by how well my kids behave, but by how well they are loved. I learned that I have a lot more growing to do as a wife than I thought previously. I learned that trucks are much more highly onomatopoeic than I ever knew. I learned that books set in the South are far more enjoyable when read aloud with an exaggerated Southern accent, and that stories that take place in the UK would be better read aloud with a great British accent (if only I could pull it off). I now know that crocodiles live in many parts of the world but alligators only live in America and China, and that frogs lay their eggs in a blob while toads lay theirs in a chain.

But what struck me most in all my reading was something I have read so many times that I never saw it - something I've heard so many times, I've been deaf to it. I heard it and saw it for the very first time this Lent - repeatedly - as I read so many different accounts of the Passion to my children. Right there, in black and white (frequently with beautiful illustrations) was this shocking tidbit: after Jesus was tortured, condemned, brutalized, crucified and killed, his body was sort of hastily placed in a tomb because they didn't have time to do any of the nice things they usually did for the dead before burying them. They. Didn't. Have. Time.  That's what it says.  They did not have time. Of course, they were fully intending to come back in a day or two, but at that very moment there simply was not enough time.

These women not only loved Jesus as intensely as you love the person you most fiercely love, but they all, to some extent, believed or were near believing that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ, God Incarnate. In other words, they not only loved him but reverenced him. But they didn't have time to anoint His mutilated body - the Body that had endured so much and lay lifeless and fully spent. "No time".

These were good, holy women....who gave priority to keeping the Sabbath over anointing the dead body of God. I don't know whether Jesus himself would have endorsed the decision or not - in so many circumstances He emphasized the freedom we have to do good and righteous acts on the Sabbath. My point is not to quibble with these blessed women (who, because of their holy desire to both fully honor the Sabbath and then fully honor the body of the Lord, were granted the most enviable privilege of being the first witnesses of the most glorious event in all history). No, I do not quibble with them at all.

My quarrel is only with myself. Although much of the Mosaic law is no longer binding upon Christians -as evidenced by the loin of pork the Sealy family ate this evening - the Ten Commandments are. Keeping the Sabbath is still one of the express commandments of my God. But, by observing most of us on Sundays, one might wonder if it is the most "disposable" of all the Commandments. Is going to church the whole requirement, or is there anything else involved in keeping the Sabbath holy? Sometimes it's like I'm operating under the assumption that Mass is a "must" - but anything beyond that is just extra-credit. In response to situations far less important than the burial of a beloved and divine Master, I regularly excuse myself for taking liberties with the sacredness of the Sabbath. I'm not talking about the traditional Jewish restrictions on Sabbath-Day activities, all I am talking about is observing a base-line Sabbath rest:
1. extra time spent with the Lord in prayer or spiritual reading,
2. extra time spent with family,
3. no unnecessary work/a day of rest from what constitutes my daily work

Part of my work is unavoidable on Sunday. There would be nothing holy about refusing to change diapers on Sunday. Laundry - that can wait one day. Errands (aka "buying stuff") ought to as well. Unless someone vomits, mopping floors shouldn't be "necessary".  So my rule of thumb for Sundays has been to "avoid" laundry, errands and unnecessary housework. But I'll make exceptions as fast as you can say "cloth diaper shortage".

One thing I've taken away from Lent this year is a conviction that the Third Commandment needs to be given a lot more weight in this house. Even Mary, the Mother of Jesus, fully knowing all that she knew about her Son's divine nature, and fully submissive to all His teachings, fully aware of the utter Authority with which he performed works of mercy on the Sabbath, and fully loving all that he was to her as her own child, even still, she let them take His broken body from her arms and lay it in the tomb unprepared so as not to break the Sabbath.  I don't understand really at all how or why she did so. But, in imitation of her, and of the other holy women who humbly obeyed God's commandment despite all the beautiful excuses they might have made, I am determined to be far more serious about "keeping holy the Sabbath". I'm not talking about avoiding works of mercy - I'm talking about avoiding work. When Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," he's telling us that taking one day a week to really rest and reorient ourselves to God and our family is a gift to us. It's good for us. I trust him. And I want to live like I do. 

from the Catechism......

2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.123 Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.

The charity of truth seeks holy leisure- the necessity of charity accepts just work.124
2186 Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.

2187 Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord's Day. Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc.), and social necessities (public services, etc.), require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure. With temperance and charity the faithful will see to it that they avoid the excesses and violence sometimes associated with popular leisure activities. In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.

2188 In respecting religious liberty and the common good of all, Christians should seek recognition of Sundays and the Church's holy days as legal holidays. They have to give everyone a public example of prayer, respect, and joy and defend their traditions as a precious contribution to the spiritual life of society. If a country's legislation or other reasons require work on Sunday, the day should nevertheless be lived as the day of our deliverance which lets us share in this "festal gathering," this "assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven."125

Monday, 4 March 2013

Straight from the Abbey

I stand awed by Julian Fellowes. Not only is he writing the most aesthetically beautiful, marriage-affirming, charity-affirming drama on television, but hardly anyone seems to notice how unapologetically Catholic these wildly popular episodes are. And I've come to think that that is exactly his plan.

For a while I wished he'd just come out and be more explicit about his lofty moral designs. I felt that it was just too subtle and PEOPLE WERE MISSING IT! But after reading this article I began to think that the problem is not that Downton Abbey is too subtle, the problem is that there aren't many other television shows that have ventured out of the "Christian ghetto" to stand in solidarity with Downton.

Now, I have taken some criticism in the past for commending the show as a great example of Catholic television. Not everyone agrees that the very hairiest moral issues of our day make for wholesome media viewing. I respect that. But Fellowes' skillful handling of those issues are the very reason for my own admiration. Whether we like it or not, these issues are the stuff of modern entertainment and we desperately need someone addressing these issues from the Christian perspective - and doing so in a way that actually appeals to people who are not hardcore Christians.

Richard's Valentine's gift to me was to sit with me and watch all of Season Three, marathon-style. I love my husband. (In about three days, when he gets around to reading this post, and realizes to his horror that the entire 62 people who read this blog now know that he watches Downton.... well, our relationship might get a little rocky around that time. Pray for me on or around March 7th....)

I wanted to post immediately on what most struck me, but I forced myself to wait until the season finished airing in the States. It has. I hold back no longer. In order not to make this into a massively long post, I'm just going to skim through some of the areas in which I most appreciated Fellowes' counter-cultural and Catholic innuendos as he brilliantly depicts the complexity of navigating the modern world as it came of age, showing "normal" people grappling with the mysteries of sin (as these sins were abruptly losing their taboo). Alongside, he quietly explores the mystery of suffering and demonstrates the potential for growth in goodness that suffering offers not only to the sufferer, but to any who merely witness suffering.

Marriage Affirming
I was really pleased to see the sanctity and goodness of faithful, life-long marriage being portrayed from so many different angles. This attitude is so completely atypical of television. Most abundant in these episodes is the intense joy and beauty in the faithful love between Anna and Bates, Sybil and Tom, Mary and Matthew. Additionally, Fellowes tastefully highlights the very particular joy that the latter couple derive from the fullness of marital intimacy after a thoroughly pure and chaste courtship. He also  quietly but powerfully emphasizes the joy that babies bring- not only to their parents, but to the entire community that receives them. This is true both in regard to the babies born to the Crawley girls (as the good and much-desired fulfilment of their marital love), but also in regard to the little boy born to poor Ethel.

Though Lord and Lady Grantham go through another (understandable!) rough patch in their marriage following Sybil's death, their loving appreciation of each other is renewed (plus some) many months later when they witness the painful relationship between Shrimpy and his wife in Scotland. In contrast, the full tragedy of Shrimpy's marriage is depicted - and though that sort of slow deterioration of friendship and affection is utterly cliche, Fellowes handles it with genuine compassion and shows it to be no less tragic for being so common.

Furthermore, the problem of adultery is handled from a few vantage points, and in every case is denied to be a good, true or beautiful choice. Matthew Crawley, ever the defender of what is pure and honorable, is quick to speak and act on behalf of marital fidelity in the two most explicit and "justifiable" cases: young Rose's dalliance with the man married to the "horrid" wife and the pursuit of Edith by the newspaper editor married to an institutionalized woman. Although Edith's last words about the matter indicate that she intends to move forward with the affair, I believe that if she does in fact do so, Season Four will fully explore the suffering she will bring upon herself and others by such a decision. Edith's own words, when she initially contemplated the affair, "I just can't see a happy ending...." will undoubtedly prove prophetic. I am confident of such, because utterly absent from three seasons of Downton episodes has been a single instance in which dishonoring the Christian ideals of marriage has brought any true or lasting joy to a single character. Fully to the contrary. Are any other television shows out there echoing this eternal truth? I know of none.

Julian Fellowes has very few flat characters who are always saintly or always evil. True, it seems Matthew Crawley and Mrs Hughes unfailingly choose the good. All the rest are just normal people who sometimes (or often) betray their weakness, vice and sinfulness in every area common to man. And the few who characteristically tend towards evil, malice and vice are shown to be wounded and vulnerable souls deserving of compassion. In other words, Fellowes hates the sin and loves the sinner - and invites us to do the same.

I'm thinking particularly of Thomas, whom I have "loved to hate" for three years. I found, at the end of this past season, that he has almost become one of my favorite characters. Only now, I love to love him. I'm gratified that Fellowes has never made Thomas to be the insipid, ubiquitous stereotype of a homosexual that litters most of television. In this season particularly, Thomas defies those narrow cliches with his physical strength and bravery. In the pain and humiliation he endures, and the vulnerability and courage he shows, and in watching the beautiful process of him learning to love chastely, he has taught me much about the virtue of charity. Julian Fellowes has written the drama of Thomas brilliantly, exposing the lies that the religious tell themselves about homosexuals. In fact, I think my favorite line of the entire season is when Thomas turns at the door, looks Carson in the eye and softly states, "I am not foul." Characters compassionate to Thomas are heroic. Falsely "moral" characters reveal their own uncharity, hypocrisy and ugliness (this is true not only as they react to Thomas' dilemma, but also as they react to that of Ethel, the reformed prostitute). Watching the treatment that Thomas and Ethel received (both the best and the worst of it) caused me to think deeply and examine my own heart. It also helped me understand how the "moral" underpinnings of an entire culture came undone so rapidly. It was well that such false morality came undone! Now it remains to be rebuilt - authentically.

I did know in advance that Fellowes intended to "introduce an explicitly Catholic story line" in season three. I do not know if he intends to continue it in season four. My first reaction after viewing all of season three was that he really had not done very much with the Catholic story line. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. Initially. However, in a season replete with quotes from Scripture and explicit dialogue about both Christ and the Catholic Church, the scripted protests voiced against the Catholic Church are absurd and are depicted as narrow-minded bigotry. Maybe that's all he is intending to do explicitly. Far more pervasive was the very subtle and unbroken upholding of Catholic moral theology in every one of the wide and varied issues the episodes touched upon. Marc John Paul Barnes would say, I think, that Julian Fellowes has chosen the better part. May it not be taken from him.