Friday, December 30, 2011

The Family As Icon

A few years ago I remember hearing a homily about the Holy Family. Rather than addressing the beautiful strangeness of the iconic family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the primary emphasis was on their normality. "They were just a normal family, just like you and me," or something along those lines. Yes, just like us, the members of the Holy Family were only human.

I remember being a bit puzzled by this homily. Yes, it's true that the Holy Family was composed of human beings, just like any other human family. But were they really normal? Were they typical? My suspicion is that they were anything but. After all, both parents were visited by angelic beings on several occasions. And although their son was fully human, He was also fully...divine. So why emphasize the normality of this truly exceptional family?

In his 1994 "Letter to Families," Pope John Paul II expresses what I think, to a certain extent, is at risk in  this treatment of the Holy Family. He says:

"Unfortunately various programmes backed by very powerful resources nowadays seem to aim at the breakdown of the family. At times it appears that concerted efforts are being made to present as "normal" and attractive, and even to glamourize, situations which are in fact "irregular". Indeed, they contradict "the truth and love" which should inspire and guide relationships between men and women, thus causing tensions and divisions in families, with grave consequences particularly for children. The moral conscience becomes darkened; what is true, good and beautiful is deformed; and freedom is replaced by what is actually enslavement."

What struck me as dangerous about the assertion that the Holy Family was "normal" was that the modern definition of the normal family has been dramatically altered. As Blessed John Paul II states, irregularity is now considered the norm. Just watch a few modern sitcoms and it's obvious. Although family situations like same-gender parents are obviously irregular from a Catholic perspective, they aren't necessarily considered to be out of place from a secular standpoint. In fact, a refusal to tolerate these arrangements and label them as acceptable may be one of the few modern vices, or to put it less "religiously," weaknesses.

What is even more frightening about this change is what Blessed John Paul II refers to in his homily: that is, that "what is true, good and beautiful is deformed..." The irregular instances that demonstrate the breakdown of the family are considered not only to be acceptable, but also desirable and attractive. Truly happy families are looked down upon with scorn.  After all, any family who seems that happy must have some dark, deep secret, right? We are unable to accept the beautiful as it is. We delight more in the twisted perversions that lie beneath the appearance of beauty. Horror movies wouldn't be nearly as popular if this weren't the case.

The tendency to shrink away from beauty and perfection in the religious sense manifests itself in more subtle ways, too. I, for one, feel enormous peer pressure to present my family as normal. Ask anything else of your family and you'll probably be called pretentious or snobbish. Catholics in particular must be on guard against this mindset. After all, are we not called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? Here's a story to illustrate my point. My husband and I chose a little-known Scots Gaelic name for our firstborn daughter. Although her name does have symbolic significance, she is not named after a canonized saint. When Catholics ask if there is a saint with the same name, my husband will often reply, "Not yet." The first time he said this, the questioner (who also happened to be a Catholic) was absolutely horrified. After all, he said, who are we to hope that our children will one day be saints?

And yet isn't that what we should hope for them? To be saints, to be the intimate friends of God, is what should define the family. It is what should motivate all our actions, words and thoughts. The Holy Family was, after all, "only human." But this does not simply normalize sanctity; rather, it elevates our humanity. This elevation is a calling, something to which we as families must respond. In a perfect world--in the New Creation--the Holy Family is, indeed, the norm. Until then, we less-than-holy families should strive not for normality, but for radical difference...yes, for perfection.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Castrating the Holy Innocents

A new sort of news has become startlingly frequent in the media during the days surrounding Christmas. Specialists: psychologists, psychiatrists, analysts, therapists, journalists (who seem to be able to assimilate all of the aforementioned areas of expertise), and all other -ists, have gathered together in a grand alliance and their message is brave.  It is certainly new.  Well sort of.  At least it is worldly.

It seems (certainly unbeknownest to ourselves, but really only because of how we have been educated) that parents are the single greatest threat to their children's freedom.  The Ists concur: it is a scientific fact.  For instance, and most relevant to recent media enlightenments, parents are the primary historical cause for the continuation of the last great social myths: gender roles.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, according to media reports, we parents have treated our boys and girls like... well...boys and girls.  Yes, it sounds absurd when you put it like that. But to suggest that the Ists are just that--evidently absurd--cannot be fair.  Right?  Hm.

Perhaps the problem is in our language!  Perhaps if our ancestors had been as enlightened as our Journalists they would have never developed the words "boy" and "girl" to begin with.  So here then is the charge of the Ists:  we parents have been treating some of our Its like boys and then some of our Its like girls.  Now that sounds much less absurd.

We have been cookie cutting our Its into the form of our own inherited traditional, cultural outdated social norms.  But this is not fair to the Its!  This will cause suppression and/or depression.  The Its should be allowed to be free, to freely choose their own identity.  We do not want them to find themselves, we want them to create themselves.

The assumption here of course is that life is not a gift, with inherent purpose and meaning.  Freedom is not the ability to pursue one's purpose.  Life is a void and to be free is to be unformed within that void.

The assumption is that bodies are meaningless.   Our children's bodies are meaningless.  Their bodies are disconnected from themselves, identities which must be thought of as some dislocated ego floating in a void.

Of course I am then left with a question: according to this brave new line of thinking, how can we as parents protect our Its' freedom?

Clearly, we do not want them to receive any sort of  outside influence (it is never the case that a lack of influence is itself influential on a child's development).  This would immediately impede upon their freedom.  We would never want to engender them with our own "values", convictions, beliefs, customs, traditions (which of course were not themselves ultimately given to us but which our ancestors created out of thin air), etc.  We must always speak vaguely and non-objectively when the Its are present.

We should also hide their genitalia from them.  It is simply too dangerous to their freedom for them to ever come into contact with sexual difference.  They might, once they noticed this difference, develop words to distinguish these differences, like "womanhood" or "manhood."  They might think, since children often innocently believe that things have purposes (idiots), that this difference actually meant something and that they were called to respond to this meaning.

If they noticed such a seeming contradiction between their bodies and what we told them, they might think that we were trying to hide this meaning from them, that we were trying to force them into a matrix of genderless sterility, that we were trying to take their bodies away from them, that we were depriving them of purpose, that they were left without meaning and feel pressured to generate new and strange identities to compensate for this deprivation.  They might believe that they now lived in a totalitarian regime.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Killing Wrens, Racing Horses for Ale

St. Stephen's Day is an important feast in the liturgical calendar and is associated with a great deal of customs from various places.  Perhaps most well known is Boxing Day (British).  As a child I always used to imagine that this was a day on which people would simply slug each other. Although, incidentally,  it used to be that people would strike each other with holly branches throughout the day, in actual fact, Boxing Day is a time of almsgiving on which one would give boxes of money, gifts or food to servants or the less fortunate.  This is commemorated in the story of Good King Wenceslas, who travels with his servant through the cold and snow to give alms to a peasant family.

This story is told in the famous carol "Good King Wenceslas" which it is customary to sing on this day: 

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing 

It was a commonplace tradition to go hunting on St. Stephen's Day.  The most popular game animal was the wren (although fox hunting was also common) who was believed to be guilty of betraying St. Stephen and also represented the old year.  Whole families would go out to picnic during the hunt, bringing with them the makings for a great feast from Christmas leftovers.  The wren would later be processed through the villages on a pole and the hunters would go from door to door requesting funds for a proper funeral.

In many areas of Europe, Stephen is associated with horses.  For this reason it was always customary, especially in Eastern and Northern Europe to engage in horse racing.  Similarly, bands of men, calling themselves St. Stephen's Men, gallop through the villages singing about St. Stephen.  In return, the villagers would supply them with a breakfast of ale.  St. Stephen's Day bread would also be baked, in the shape of a horseshoe and filled with jam or a poppyseed sauce.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Final Brewing Day

I remember a professor in Belgium telling a class about how much Belgian culture had changed during his lifetime.  "Look," he said "you cannot possibly see it, but it is the fabric... the substance that has changed.  When I was young the women, when they made bread, they would cut crosses into every loaf's crust and bless each.  Daily bread was treated like a eucharist.  Can you imagine such superstitions now?"  Actually, we probably cannot imagine such inherent piety.  Even if our devotion as Catholics extends beyond Mass once a week, confession once a month and adoration once in a blue moon, how often do we bless our children, the food that we cook or even ourselves?  I believe that this would make us embarrassed, even in the privacy of our own homes. Arguably such blessings, relics, sacaramentals etc. are embarrassing if we view them as superstitions.  But our Catholic heritage has always been saturated with such things.  It is inextricably intertwined, bound up in them.  Are we losing ourselves?  Are we embarrassed by our forefathers?  We need a renewal and the location of this renewal is the family, the household.  Here we must be proactive.

One of the Opas (Grandpas) in the family was present during a papal visit by JPII years ago.  This simple Texan became immensely excited when the Holy Father passed by, and began to bless the pontiff vigorously.  He has, of course, been teased for this ever since.  Imagine blessing the one man in the world who, more than any other, ought to be the one bestowing blessings!  Yet I am not so sure he had the wrong idea.  Certainly we must not see the Church as an outside entity that grants us special blessings.   A Catholic cultural renewal is going to come from the domestic Church, from our tables and from our beds.  We have a unique blessing to give to the rest of the Church and to the rest of the world.  As priests, prophets and kings of our own households, as icons of Christ to our families we must actively engage what Christ has given to us.

Today, Christ has given us ale: the final brewing day has arrived and it is time to bottle the beer.

Here is what you need: Capper, 50 empty beer bottles (non-screwtop), bottle  caps, racking (siphon) hose, springless bottle filler, auto siphon.

1.)  Sanitize (bottling bucket, racking tubes, bottles, bottle caps, brewing spoon)  Sanitizing the bottles can be enormously time consuming, or you can simply put them facing down in the dishwasher without any detergent.  The heat will sanitize the bottles.

2.)  Rack (siphon) the ale into the the bottling bucket.

3.) In a saucepan, dissolve 3/4 cup of corn sugar  in 2 cups of boiling water for 5 minutes

4.) Stir in the dissolved corn sugar into the ale.  This primes the beer and is what will cause the carbonation to occur within the bottles.

5.)  +Bless the Beer+ (See below)

6.)  Using the siphon hose attached to a bottle filler, fill each bottle.  In order for the ale to fill the bottle, the filler must be pressed against the bottom of the bottle.  To stop the flow of the beer, just lift filler from the bottom.  It is important to leave about 1" of space in each bottle.  However, because the filler is displacing the beer, you can fill the bottles relatively close to the top, and when you lift the filler out there will be just about an inch of space left.

7.)  After filling each, cap the bottle and place in dark, cool location.

We found the following beer blessing at the Catholic Beer Review blog:

Blessing of Beer:

V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.

V. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.


Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum.

R. Amen.

Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.

English translation:

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.

V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.

Let us pray.

Bless, + O Lord, this creature beer, which thou hast deigned to produce from the fat of grain: that it may be a salutary remedy to the human race, and grant through the invocation of thy holy name; that, whoever shall drink it, may gain health in body and peace in soul. Through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

Sprinkle with holy water.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Lazarus, Come Forth!

Here's a poem to honor the Biblical saint, whose feast day we remember today:
The Convert

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Saint Lazarus, Friend of Christ, Pray for Us!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another Forgotten Fast

Yes, I know, feast days with edible eyeballs and churches made out of bones may be more exciting than fast days. But it's amazing to me that an ancient fast that was traditionally observed several times throughout the year has been all but wiped out in contemporary Catholicism. The traditional observance of Ember Days is a beautiful custom that I had never even heard of until very recently (as in last week).

As noted in this great post over at the New Liturgical Movement's blog, the Ember Days fast dates back to New Testament times. Like many feasts and fasts, Ember Days was originally intended as a tribute to the bounty of the Earth and the cycles of the seasons. They were traditionally held in the winter, spring, summer and autumn months. The winter Ember Days fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the feast of Saint Lucy (December 13). The fasts repeat in Lent, after Pentecost and in September. As noted in the great text, "The Golden Legend," a bestseller of the medieval period that dates back to 1275:

"Then let us fast in March which is printemps for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice." 

The three fast days this week are also characterized by special devotions: thanksgiving on Wednesday, repentance from sin on Friday and charity on Saturday. Interestingly, for all those readers who are familiar with the temperaments, the winter fast is also meant to purify the phlegmatic tendency, which was believed to be especially dominant in the winter months. Again, Jacobus de Voraigne phrases it perhaps most appropriately: "In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic."

Now that I know about this fast I've found that there's actually quite a bit of literature on it. In fact, I encountered a passage in Sigrid Undset's series "The Master of Hestviken" just the other day that refers to it: 

"Some days after, he had business that took him inland, and Eirik was to accompany him as far as the church; it was a Wednesday in the ember days, and Sira Hallbjorn [a priest] insisted that all who could should attend church in the ember days." 

For readers who don't know, the books take place in medieval Norway and are rife with Catholic imagery and themes. I was so excited to find this reference to the Ember Days. Isn't it amazing that what was once a commonplace custom is now virtually unknown?

Anyway, although there may not be special recipes to mark these fast days, we can observe them with prayerfulness and our own attempts at mortification (although the medievals certainly have us beat when it comes to that as well...but that's another post). After all, what fun is feasting without fasting?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eating Lucy's Eyeballs

St. Lucy Queen of Lights

As Catholics (especially cradle Catholics) we are admittedly macabre.  I do not say "perceived to be" or "seemingly" macabre.  You cannot be a true Catholic if you are not authentically macabre.  The fact the most people have a purely negative association with the term only serves to demonstrate that most people are not Catholic, or, at the very least, that we have relinquished any level of Catholic vocabulary.  The word "macabre" is itself macabre.  It stems from Old French and is derived from the originary meaning 'dance of death', a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabee Brothers.  This hidden origin of the word is a perfect example of the traditional Catholic acquaintance with the gruesome.  We have churches composed of bones (Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic or Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome for instance) statues of saints proudly bearing their own murder/torture implements (my favorite perhaps being St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin) and of course the stories are endless (think St. Lawrence: "Turn me over I'm done on this side"-patron saint of Barbeques).  Most obviously, we Catholics proudly bear the death instrument  which mangled Our Lord as our most evident symbol.  Indeed, we refuse to tidy this image up by removing Christ from the cross.  Give us a chance and we will likely try to paint on a bit more blood.   We are macabre, and I do not think this fact should be lost upon us.  Of course we wish to instigate a culture of life, but always, in defending life we find ourselves defending the potential beauty and meaning within suffering.  Truly, our celebration of the macabre is always a dance of hope.

December 13 is St. Lucy's day, a macabre celebration, second in some ways only to Dia de Muertos.  Lucy was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletion.  A Sicilian, she is yet another example of a beautiful Christian virgin who is set on causing trouble for her suitors.  In one version of the story a suitor complimented her on her beautiful eyes.  Never a timid creature, Lucy cut her own eyeballs out and sent them to the suave fellow so he would kindly leave her be.  The tamer version has Diocletion's soldiers doing the deed, but either way she has consequently become the patron saint of eye diseases and blindness.  She is portrayed happily toting her eyeballs, sometimes on a plate or other times (such as in the image above) between her fingers.

Lucy is especially popular in Scandinavia and Italy, where her feast day is celebrated with torchlight processions and bonfires. Italians make and eat cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs to honor St. Lucy's memory. Sicilians abstain from anything made with wheat flour on her feast day and eat potatoes or rice instead. This practice is in honor one of Lucy's many miracles. In 1582, during a severe famine, Lucy made a fleet of grain-bearing ships appear in the harbor.  The people promptly ate the grain without preparing it in the normal fashion. In Palermo, a dessert called cuccia is made out of whole-wheat berries and ricotta.

The Scandinavian celebration of St. Lucy's day revolves primarily around the meaning of her name, which makes sense considering the country's dreadful, dark winters. As parents, we particularly appreciate this custom: According to tradition, the oldest or youngest daughter wakes up before sunrise to serve her family a delicious feast of treats like lussekatter (Lucy cats), saffron-flavored buns, ginger biscuits and cross shaped pastries, as well coffee or, even better, hot spiced wine with aquavit. She dresses in a long white gown with a red sash and wears a crown of greens topped with anywhere from four to nine lighted candles.


Yield. Makes about five 750 ml bottles
Preparation time. About 90 minutes
1.5 liter bottle inexpensive dry red wine
1.5 liter bottle inexpensive American port
750 ml bottle inexpensive brandy
10 inches cinnamon stick
15 cardamom seed pods or 1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
2 dozen whole cloves
1 orange peel, whole and washed
1/2 cup dark raisins
1 cup blanched almonds
2 cups sugar
Garnish with the peel of another orange


1) Crack the cardamom seed pods open by placing a pod on the counter and laying a butter knife on top of it. With the palm of your hand, press on the knife. They will crack it open so the flavors of the seeds can escape.
2) Pour the red wine and port into a stainless steel or porcelain kettle. Do not use an aluminum or copper pot since these metals interact with the wine and brandy to impart a metallic taste. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, orange peel, raisins, and almonds. Cover and simmer.
3) Put the sugar in a pan and soak it with half the brandy. Warm over a medium-low flame and stir occasionally until it becomes a clear, golden syrup and all the sugar is dissolved. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes until the little tiny bubbles become large burbles. This starts caramelizing the sugar and adds a layer of flavor.
4) Add the sugar syrup to the spiced wine mix. Cover and let it simmer over a low heat for an hour.
5) Taste. If you wish, add more sugar or brandy to suit your taste. If you do, go easy, 1/4 cup at the most. 
6) Just before serving, strain to remove the spices, almonds, and raisins. You can serve your glögg immediately or bottle it and age it. A month or two of aging really enhances the flavors. A year is even better. If you are going to age glögg, use wine or whiskey bottles and make sure they are clean. Bottle glögg while it is still warm. Fill the bottles as high as possible and seal them tight. You don't have to lie them down to age, and if you use used corks, they might leak where the corkscrew entered if you lie them down.
7) Fringe benefits. Do not discard the raisins and almonds when you are done, they are impregnated with flavor! I put the raisins in a jar in the refrigerator to use in pannetone or other desserts, or toast the almonds in a 225F oven for about 90 minutes and eat them as snacks.
8) Serving. To serve glögg, warm it gently in a saucepan over a low flame or, better still, in a crockpot. Serve it in a mug and, don't skip this, garnish it with a strip of fresh orange peel, twisted over the mug to release the oils. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

One of the most striking aspects of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is its simplicity. Juan Diego is a humble farmer, recently converted to the Catholic Faith. The task that Our Lady asks of her "dear little son"--to build, in Our Lady's words, "a church in this place where your people may experience my compassion"--is a relatively simple request. When I read the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe I am always amazed at the momentous impact it has had on the Catholic world. Centuries later, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is so well-known that you can purchase candles bearing its likeness at major superstores.

And yet the story also reveals a strange paradox: simplicity is not always easy. It is not merely a lack of effort. To accomplish a simple task can, as in the case of Juan Diego, require the miraculous. In our age of modern convenience, we must be especially aware of this paradox. Too often we settle for the easy way out with the illusion that we live "the simple life." Perhaps the most obvious example is in the realm of food. Easy, convenient food is not the same thing as simple food. Easy food can be warmed up in seconds in a microwave. Simple may food take hours, days, even years to stew, roast, is often inconvenient and rarely quick.  May Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego give us the persistence to "keep it simple," even if it requires a bit of extra effort.


To celebrate this feast day, here is a simple (and easy) recipe for Mexican hot chocolate that also makes a delicious winter treat:

3 cups hot cocoa mix
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Mix all the ingredients together. Warm some water, or use milk for creamier hot chocolate. Use about 3 heaping tablespoons per one cup of liquid. Serve with a cinnamon stick, whipped cream and grated Mexican chocolate or mini chocolate chips.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas and of All Unborn Children, Pray for us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Christmas Tree Dilemma

It is immensely difficult to observe the Advent season properly, as the rest of the world celebrates a premature, commercially driven Christmas.  I have frequently heard people complain that by the time Christmas arrives they are sick of the music, sweets and culture associated with a season they have only just reached.  Somehow none of this can trespass on those sacred moments when the family is circled around the advent wreath, warmed by the tiny flames of expectation, and singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel."  Still, it can be difficult to gauge how best to live in the world but not of the world during this time.

One important decision to be made regards what is for most a prime symbol of Christmas: the Christmas Tree.

Like so many of our traditions, the Christmas Tree most likely finds its roots in pagan culture, where evergreen plants were used during the Winter Solstice to signify the power of life over death.  Tradition tells of St. Boniface, who traveled as an English missionary to the Germanic tribes in the 8th Century, as being the progenitor of the Christmas tree tradition.  The pagans were accustomed to making sacrifices to the Norse god Odin before a great oak tree.  The tale goes that Boniface came upon a pagan rite in which a young boy was about to be sacrificed to the god.  Boniface took his axe and felled the oak in one stroke, saving the boy.  An evergreen tree sprang up from where the oak had been and Boniface declared that this was the tree of life and that it represented Christ.

Certainly from around the Sixteenth Century pine trees were brought indoors and decorated on Christmas Eve for the twelve days of Christmas.  However, tragically, Western Culture has lost its liturgical framework, Advent has culturally perished and "Christmas" has devoured itself out of any religious significance..  Now of course it is customary to have a neighborhood race to see who can have their tree up and decorated first following Thanksgiving.  I noticed several people cheating this year and putting their trees up a week before Thanksgiving.  As in so many arenas the Catholic is always slowed down in this particular competition by a healthy twinge of conscience.  The Catholic knows that in fact most everyone is cheating because the race does not start until Christmas Eve.  However, as is often the case, it is difficult, even dangerous to do things properly.  Two years ago we decided to wait until Christmas Eve to buy a tree.  Much to my dismay, all of the tree vendors had packed up and left.  After combing the town for hours, I finally found a Home Depot that was giving trees away for free which were being prepared to be trashed.  As Providential as this seemed at the time, I prefer not to leave things up to chance every year.

So who cares when people whip out their plastic blinking hypnotic nightmarish flora replicas?  The problem is that the Christmas tree is a sacramental.  We need to fight to preserve, cherish and protect the beauty, the power and the meaning behind this very special monstrance of hope.  That is, after all the origin of the Christmas tree.  Sound ridiculous?  Guess that goes to show how much ground we have lost, but we can win it back, at least for our families.

So what to do about the Christmas tree dilemma?  We have settled into a tradition of buying our tree on Gaudete Sunday and then keeping it outside until Christmas Eve.  Society isn't structured to assist the liturgical pursuit, but you can box back.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Brewing Day Two

"I should like a great lake of ale, for the King of the Kings. I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal." ~ St. Brigid.

Saint Brigid (feast day February 1) is one of the many patron saints of beer and brewers.  She is usually remembered for her important role during the early moments of Christianity in Ireland and her founding of the monastery of Kildare.  Of greater interest to me, however, is her deep respect and love of beer.  Indeed many of her miracles directly involve ale.  Once, for instance, she was able to supply eighteen churches with beer from Maundy Thursday to the end of the Easter Season with one barrel of her private stock. Another time, while visiting a leper colony, she found to her great dismay that the lepers were so wretched that they did not even have any beer.  With an abbess' great sense of economy, she used dirty bathwater as the medium for her miracle: "For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed the water, which was used for the bath, into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty." This is not the only time that she utilized bathwater for this very same purpose.  Brigid is said to have changed her own dirty bathwater into ale for visiting priests when she   found her supply exhausted.   

The Christmas ale has, for all intents and purposes, finished fermenting in the primary fermentor and now it is time to transfer the ale to a carboy for the secondary fermentation process.

1.)  Sanitize your carboy carefully, as well as your racking hose.

 2.)  Fill your racking hose with water so as to begin the racking (siphoning) process.

3.)  Rack into a separate container until the water has cleared the hose.

4.)  Rack the beer into the carboy.

5.)  Add two vanilla beans, two sticks of cinnamon and one tablespoon of shaved ginger.

6.)  Put lid and airlock 
in place.

7.)  Store in dark cool area for about five days.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christ at Play

I believe it is essential to expose our children to as much poetry as possible.  The beauty of poetry is soul-forming.  Great poems carry us beyond our normal patterns and help us to engage the transcendent.  Children are able to absorb poems at an astounding rate, as if they possess intuitive fluency within poetic language.  As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a splendid poem for Advent.  

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

           Gerard Manley Hopkins
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Saintly Companions

"Come, then, and search out Your sheep, not through Your servants or hired men, but do it Yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sara but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free from every stain of sin."

How fitting it is that the feast of Saint Ambrose, one of the earliest defenders of Mary's Immaculate Conception, falls on this day. I remember reading Saint Augustine's "Confessions" for the first time, which was also the first I heard mention of St. Ambrose.  I always knew that St. Augustine's mother, St. Monica, was one of God's important instruments in St. Augustine's conversion. However, not only did Saint Ambrose have a profound influence on Augustine, but he also encouraged Monica in her own incessant prayers for her son's conversion. As Saint Augustine himself says in the "Confessions," "...that man (Ambrose) she loved as an angel of God, because she knew that by him I had been brought for the present to that doubtful state of faith I now was in, through which she anticipated most confidently that I should pass from sickness unto health, after the access, as it were, of a sharper fit, which physicians call "the crisis."

Somehow Saint Ambrose was able to attract a steady flock of followers (he was so busy that Saint Augustine could rarely find time to meet with him) without simply compromising with the times. And the times were tough. The Arian heresy, which questioned the very divinity of Christ Himself, was at its height and moral decadence was rampant. Through it all Ambrose remained true to the Church and led one of Her greatest Saints to his own conversion.

The life of Saint Ambrose, as well as so many other Saints, is a much-needed source of hope, particularly during this Advent season. Like the Catholic community of St. Ambose's time, the Church today is also no stranger to adversity. Individualism, consumerism and relativism are only a few of the modern heresies that pervade our culture. Religion is cast off for "spirituality." The family, the reflection of the eternal love of the Trinity, is sacrificed on the altar of individualism and self-interest.  Like Saint Monica and her son, let us ask this great Saint to intercede for us and guide the Magisterium as well as the Domestic Church. In St. Ambrose's own words: 

"Lord, teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me when I seek You.
For I cannot seek You unless You first teach me, nor find You, unless You first reveal Yourself to me.

Let me seek You in longing, and long for You in seeking.
Let me find You in love, and love You in finding.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Toast to Saint Nicholas

Toast Saint Nicholas tonight with a glass of warm mulled wine,or "Bisschopswijn." It's easy to make and a pleasure to drink. For 2 to 3 servings you will need:

1 liter of wine
An orange
A lemon
20 cloves
2-3 tablespoons of sugar
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks

To make the mulled wine, pour a bottle of wine into a big pot. Take one orange and one lemon and stick ten whole cloves in each. Add them to the wine, along with a cinnamon stick or two and a few tablespoons of sugar. Bring the wine to a gentle boil, then lower the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for about an hour. Serve in a heat-proof mug or glass.

Happy Feast Day everyone!

Monday, December 5, 2011

St. Nicholas Eve

December 6th is the feast day of one of the Church's most popular saints: St. Nicholas. This feast day always brings me back to one of the many memorable moments I had while living in Belgium. I was in the town square one day doing some shopping and walked into a Walgreens-like store called "Hema." It was the first week of December. I was astonished at the first thing I saw when I walked in the doors. In the middle of the aisle was a display rack with St. Nicholas puppets, just like these. They were the featured item for sale. Old St. Nick was ornately adorned in his bishop's mitre, cross in the center, with a removable staff and several changes of liturgical garments. And not only was St. Nick the featured and fastest-selling toy for sale, but each puppet set also came with his politically incorrect companion, Black Peter.

I was absolutely enchanted. Had I not been a poor university student, I would have bought them right then and there. The legend of Saint Nicholas may be one of the most forgotten and dramatically altered traditions of the Church. Although there are many variations of the St. Nicholas legend, none of them makes any mention of a North Pole or Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Like many altered legends as well as fairy tales, I have to admit that I find the changes quite baffling and even irritating. Why should families have to trade their devotion to this noble and generous Saint for a highly dubitable character in red polyester? The answer: they don't. Aside from social pressure or a sense of childhood nostalgia, I can't think of a reason you would.  Here's a quick summary of a few of the Saint Nicholas stories:

"When an impoverished father was on the verge of selling his three daughters into prostitution, Nicholas came to the rescue with sacks of gold to provide dowries for each of them to be able to marry. When innocent men were condemned to death, Nicholas intervened with the authorities and secured their release. When a wicked innkeeper killed three lost boys, chopped them up, and pickled them, Nicholas discovered the crime and restored the boys alive to their mothers. When a ship was floundering in a storm and about to sink, Nicholas calmed the storm and saved the lives of the sailors. Whenever possible, his good deeds were performed in secret and, needless to say, they have continued long after his death."

Worlds apart from elves with pointy shoes making toys in the world's coldest regions for a jolly man who eats too many cookies. The first story about the girls being sold into prostitution is what inspires the tradition of setting out shoes on St. Nicholas Eve. Legend has it that St. Nick threw the bags of gold through the girls' open window, where it just happened to land in their stockings. Children all over the world set their shoes out tonight in anticipation of St. Nick's generosity. St. Nick fills our daughter's shoe with gold chocolate coins, candy canes, and sometimes a small present (last year it was a holy card of the Saint himself). He also reappears on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with small gifts.

Baking is another St. Nick tradition. We plan to make traditional speculaas cookies today for our St. Nicholas Eve feast. Someday we want to buy these amazing speculaas molds for our St. Nicholas cookies (not to mention Christmas, shortbread, etc.). For now, we'll just keep it simple. I'm using a recipe from Catholic Cuisine, a great blog for anyone interested in Catholic cooking. Here's the recipe:


Mix in order:
  • 1 cup shortening (I'm using butter)
  • 2 cups white sugar (or you can use half brown and half white)
  • 4 eggs
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons allspice
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cloves

Mix all ingredients and turn out the dough onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup additional flour or as much as you need until dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle.

Put into a plastic bag and refrigerate until chilled and stiff. Then you are ready to roll out and cut the cookies. Cut off a manageable piece and keep the rest cool until you are ready for more.

For the larger, hand decorated St. Nicholas cookies, roll the dough to about ¼ inch thickness. Cut out cookie around paper pattern. Place on greased baking sheet.

Bake at 350º F. until golden-brown.

To conclude, here's a short prayer entrusting our children to this great Saint:

God our Father, we pray
that through the intercession of St. Nicholas,
you will protect our children.
Keep them safe from harm
and help them grow
and become worthy in your sight.
Give them strength
to keep their faith in you;
and keep alive their joy
in your creation.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We call upon your mercy, O Lord.
Through the intercession of St. Nicholas,
keep us safe amid all dangers
so that we may go forward without hindrance
on the road of salvation. Amen.

St. Nicholas,  Pray For Us!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Family as a Work of Art

I was the first one up this morning (the girls always sleep in when it is cold).  Left to myself, I picked up Wendell Berry's book What are People For? that I had recently received from my parents as a birthday gift and had not yet had time to peruse.  This work is a collection of some of Mr. Berry's essays.  Wendell Berry is a Kentuckian farmer, who speaks here in reference to troubles on his farm:

It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles.  From the imperfections of life, one could take refuge in the perfections of art.  One could read a good poem--or better, write one.  Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered.  The rest was 'but a spume that plays/Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.'  I am no longer able to think that way.  That is because I now live in my subject.  My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.  

We are accustomed to thinking of art as something that hangs in a museum, or sits reprinted on our bookshelves.  We indulge in art on occasion, but art has very little to do with our day to day lives.  Visiting a museum further contributes to the sense that these great artistic works exist proudly, without organic context, in a void, persisting timelessly.  And then there is life.  There are the stops and gos the ins and outs, real daily hectic modern life.  It may not be pretty but its real.

What if we changed our focus?  What if we made our families, our own natural circles, the location of art?  After all this is where all those significant pieces from the museum came from originally: homes, churches.  It is as though the existence of the museum stands to serve as a reminder that such beauty can no longer exist at home, at prayer.  These works must be protected from the ugliness of "real life."

I am not suggesting that we invest in a lot of artwork and proudly hang it in our homes, or even that we compose our own artwork and put it on the wall.  What I am suggesting is that we see our homes, our families as our lives' own work of art.  Like Berry we might then find that we live in our artistic subject and that our subject is our place in the world, a place of living.  Now this would be embracing vocation.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Christmas Brew

It would be difficult to underestimate the the difference between the way households are run today and the way that they were run not so many generations ago (especially prior to the Twentieth Century).   Traditional households acted as whole societies, with a responsibility to invest their labor, resources and time in themselves, and to obtain a certain level of self-sufficiency.  This was not an attitude which was opposed to their nation (or earlier still, their kingdom), but was seen as a genuine responsibility and proper participation  in this larger society.  To put it differently, the family was seen as the fundamental political unit, the building block from which a healthy organic society must be built.  The revolution which has taken place in our pantries and cellars is one reflection of how much our notions have changed.  Today, families go to the grocery store to fill their pantries once a week or perhaps sometimes even more often.  Special occasions (say Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving)  mean that we go to the grocery store a day, perhaps a few days, in advance to stock up on everything that we will need for a full day of cooking.  This manner of pipeline buying and consuming, however, is an absolute anomaly from a wider historical and cultural perspective.  For one thing, we have lost any sense for the importance of food.  We easily purchase our food nearly ready made and rarely need to think of it at all.  It is always at our disposal and for most of us it is never scarce (except when we run out of snacks).  We have a fast food mentality.  Our food has no meaning.  People speak of the rampant sense of entitlement that so many people seem to suffer from in our society.  My thought: it started with food.  

Contrast this situation with traditional ways of treating food:  Pantries were a matrix of different foods being prepared at different rates.  Meat would be curing, herbs drying, cheese fermenting etc.  Strategy had to be utilized.  At a basic level, a well rounded diet needed to be assured but, beyond that, feasts had to be prepared for, traditional meals of particular seasons and times planned and of course, a different availability of various foods (the gift of Providence, out of the palm of God) structured all of these considerations.  My point is that food was meaningful.  For the Catholic family-society all food preparations were engendered by the yearly liturgy, giving food a sacred meaning.

In the past Catholics have prepared for Christmas all year long, not just during Advent.  Even in early spring, for instance, there was brewing, distilling and other preparations that anticipated the coming Christmas.  The brewing of special beers, wines and the like is a perfect example of this.  Ale would be brewed, weeks or more in advance, wines for months or some years, meads for much longer still.  Fermentation is sacred... beer, cheese, sausage, yogurt... Bread and Wine: there is something holy about these foods. There is a living transformation, a turn, a blossoming, a true metamorphosis, which is itself an icon of the Incarnation, of the Eucharist.  In other words there is something sacramental about the process of fermentation.  No wonder so many monasteries have had fermentation at the heart of their holy work.

The brewing process is intrinsically appropriate for the Advent season.  The anticipation of the ale coming into its own parallels the coming birth of the Messiah and feast of Christmas, when we will toast the birth of the newborn king.

Does it sound like I am proposing a Theology of Beer? Yes, yes I am.


How hard is it to brew beer?  Not much harder than making soup from scratch.  You will need to buy a basic beer making kit (including a thermometer, a primary fermenting bucket with lid, a bottling bucket, an airlock, a racking cane, 4 foot hose, springless bottle filler and a bottle capper) which you can easily find for about $70.  You will also need 50-55ish 12 ounce non-screwtop beer bottles.

Homebrewing is divided up into two or three stages (the second stage being optional), each taking place on a separate day.  Stage 1 is the brewing and primary fermentation stage. After a week or so comes optional stage 2, when the beer is transferred to a secondary fermentor.  The purpose of this stage is simply improved quality.  The beer is siphoned (racked in beer parlance) into a secondary fermentor for about 5 days to purify the beer's flavors.  You can skip this stage and move right into stage 3.  Stage 3 is the bottling day. 

Note: if you do decide to follow stage 2, you will  need to buy a carboy (plastic or glass) and a carboy plug. 

Brewing may seem intimidating but, at the end of the day, it is quite simple, without getting into the science of the art, to make extremely high quality beer on your first try.  The best homebrewing book I know of is  The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (3rd edition), by Charles Papazian.  This book is a great reference, although honestly if you just follow the directions below you will be just fine.

The following is my recipe for a Christmas Ale.  It will yield about 5 gallons, or 50 12 ounce bottles of beer, give or take.


I am excited to brew this ale, which is completely experimental.  I have no doubt that it will turn out as a good solid brew.  In my experience, as long as you stay within a few basic parameters, home brewing produces consistently decent beer.  What is experimental here is to what extent it properly expresses the season.  Worst case scenario, it will either be just a good basic beer or it will be a tad bit too spicy.


A.  Malt or Fermentables

1.)  6 LB 6OZ Light/Pale Malt Extract Syrup
2.)  12 OZ, 1 3/4 Cups Brown Sugar, Dark
3.)  8 OZ Crystal 60L
4.)  8 OZ Crystal 40L
5.)  4 OZ  Victory Malt
6.)  2 OZ Roasted Barley
7.)  1 cup molasses (optional)

Aside from the molasses and the brown sugar, you should simply go to your local brewing store and give them this list of ingredients.  They will likely give you a brown bag with all of the grains and a tub of the liquid malt.  

B.  Hops

1.5 OZ Cluster (an item for the brewing store)

C.  Yeast 

Nottingham Ale Dry Yeast (an item for the brewing store)

D.  Other 

1.)  1tsp. Cinnamon
2.)  1 tbsp. Ground ginger
3.)  1 tsp.  Irish Moss (probably most easily found at your brewing store)
4.)  2 vanilla Beans
5.)  5 gallons of water (for the sake of quality, I purchase gallon jugs of spring water)


Day 1

1.)  Sanitize.  This is a very important step that you will not want to skip.  There is nothing worse than producing 5 gallons of waste.  You can get sanitizing solution for brewers or you can make your own sanitizing solution: 1 tbsp of bleach mixed with 2.5 gallons of water.  Carefully wash all surfaces that will come into contact with your beer (thermometer, fermentor, fermentor lid, stirring spoon, cooking pot, airlock).  Rinse and then let air dry.

2.)  Heat 2.5 gallons of Spring water to between 150-165 degrees Fahrenheit.

3.)  Place grains into steeping bag, put bag of grains into brewing pot and steep for 20-30 minutes.

4.)  Remove steeping grains and discard.
5.)  Bring Wort to gentle rolling boil

6.)  Put liquid malt, molasses, brown sugar and hops into boiling wort.

7.)  Stir very carefully as the molasses and malt like to stick and burn on the bottom of the pot.

8.)  After 45 minutes from having added stir in 1 teaspoon of Irish Moss

9.)  After 55 minutes from having added the hops stir in cinnamon, ginger powder, allspice, nutmeg.  Be pretty strict about the timing on these spices.  They are volatile and will cancel out if they are boiled for over 5 minutes.

10.)  After 60  minutes from having added the hops, remove from boil.

11.)  Place Pot into ice bath in sink.

12.)  Pour wort into primary fermentor.  Try to pour it from as a high a distance from the fermentor as you can safely manage.  This aeration will help to cool the Wort down.

13.)  Add 2.5 gallons of cool water, also from a distance.

14.)  This is the trickiest stage to my mind in the brewing process: chilling the wort down to 60 degrees.  You can purchase a wort chiller and perhaps I will try to make one at some point.  For now, I place the primary fermentor in a large Tupperware and pack the space around it with ice.  Then I stir.  And stir.  And stir…  Yup, still stirring.

15.)  At some point when you might want to take a stirring break, you can hydrate your yeast.  All this means is mixing your yeast with water.  Simply follow the directions  on the back of the yeast packet.

16.)  When the Wort reaches 60 degrees, add the yeast.  I have been told it really does not matter whether or not it is stirred into the wort.

17.)  Close the fermentor.

18.)  Add airlock.  I use vodka in the airlock which keeps the fruit flies away.

19.)  Within the next 24 hours the airlock will begin to bubble excitedly, signifying an active fermentation process.  This should continue for 5-14 days.  Whenever this process ends, is when it is time for the secondary fermentation (day 2) or, if you want to skip the secondary, it is time for bottling (day 3). 
To keep the fermentor cool:  If you are keeping your fermentor in an environment which is a bit warmer than is ideal for ale (60-70 degrees), you can keep it about 10 degrees cooler by wrapping it in a wet towel.  You can keep the towel saturated by wrapping a rubber tube around the top of it with small holes punched into it, which you pump cool water through with an inexpensive indoor fountain pump.