Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Going St. Andra'ing!

Happy St. Andrew's Day!  For anyone of Scottish descent this is a special night (although he is also patron of Malta, Russia, Greece, Sicily, Ukraine, Prussia and several other areas and diocese as well).  Scotland has a lot of celebrations and holidays, but St. Andrew's day is especially important in a country in which Catholicism has had such a tumultuous past.  It hearkens back to a time when Scotland was a small Catholic kingdom, prior to the Reformation. St. Andrew's Day used to be a very popular feast day in Scotland as well. Back in the day, the farm workers would "go St. Andra'ing," which involved catching rabbits and other game. The farmers would finish off the night by feasting...a fitting conclusion for any Scottish, not to mention Catholic, holiday. 

The debate as to whether St. Andrew's Day should be a public holiday in Scotland continues, but we always try to make it a feast day in our family. Other Scottish feasts like Burns Night are also fun to celebrate, but St. Andrew's Day holds a special place, since it is a Catholic Scottish feast. Of course, as far as we're concerned, we'll baptize Burn's Night any day.

Advent Reading

If you're looking for spiritual reading this Advent, pick up Joseph Ratzinger's "The Blessing of Christmas." The book is beautifully written and so insightful.

My husband and I read it throughout Advent last year and are doing the same this year. We read a bit in the morning before he leaves for work and in the evening before bed. It's also just a beautiful book with the attractive cover and beautiful art inside. As a sneak peek, here's a bit of what we read today:

"In my daily living, I have little time for Him and little time for myself. I am completely involved from morning to evening in all the things I have to do, and I even succeed in eluding my own grasp, because I do not know how to be alone with myself. My job possesses me; the society in which I live possesses me; entertainment of various kinds possesses me; but I do not possess myself. And this means that I gradually go to seed like an overgrown garden, first in my external activities and, then, in my inner life, too. I am propelled along by my activities, for I am merely a cog in their great machinery.

But now God has drawn me out of all this. I am obliged to be still. I am obliged to wait. I am obliged to reflect on myself; I am obliged to bear being alone. I am obliged to bear pain, and I am obliged to accept the burden of my own self. All this is hard.

But may it not be the case that God is waiting for me in this stillness? May it not be the case that He is doing here what Jesus says in the parable of the vine: "Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit?"

If I learn to accept myself in these days of stillness, if I accept the pain, because the Lord is using it to purify me--does this not make me richer than if I had earned a lot of money? Has not something happened to me that is more durable than all those things that can be counted and calculated?...

The Lord is here. This Christian certainty is meant to help us look at the world with new eyes and to understand the 'visitation' as a visit, as one way in which He can come to us and be close to us."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginning Advent

A Blessed Advent to everyone! Although the first week of Advent always sneaks up on us, we were somewhat prepared this year. At this point we have established several family customs for the Advent season, including the traditional Advent wreath.

The origin of the Advent wreath is uncertain, although most seem to trace it back to 19th century Germany. What seems clear is that, like so many Catholic feasts, the use of the Advent wreath can be linked to the seasons. Even in pre-Christian Scandinavia, for example, a circular wheel would be decorated with candles to symbolize the gods turning the wheel of the Earth back toward the sun for warmth and longer days. With the dawn of Christianity, this already beautiful symbolism is enriched and deepened. Not only do we long for warmth and the return of the sun (unless you live in Phoenix, of course), but we yearn at the core of our innermost being for the Light of the World, Christ.

The traditional Advent wreath is decorated with various types of evergreens, including pine, laurel, holly, yew and cedar. We used pine branches this year as in years before. This year I want to add a new dimension to our Advent wreath custom and add a bit of new greenery each week when we light a new candle. As of right now, the wreath is made of pine branches with four small pinecones. Next week I plan to add a bit of holly. The four candles are lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent, with the pink candle reserved for the third Sunday, also known as Gaudete Sunday.

The Advent wreath is a beautiful way to anticipate that coming and stir up the longing for Christ in our souls. Incidentally, in fact,  the first Sunday of Advent used to be known as "Stir-Up Sunday." Families would spend all day preparing the Christmas pudding or mincemeat so that the flavors could mix and deepen by Christmas. We haven't adopted this custom in our family as of yet, although I'm sure we will in future years when we have more tummies at the table and cooks in the kitchen. Our celebration is very simple: we have a feast. We begin the dinner with the lights off and bring the Advent wreath to the table (unlit, of course). Then Papa says this blessing:

All make the sign of the cross.  The Papa begins:
Our help is in the name of the Lord.

All Respond:
Who made heaven and earth.

The Papa introduces the Blessing:
In the short days and long nights of Advent, we realize how we are always waiting for deliverance, always needing salvation by our God.  Around this wreath, we shall remember God’s promise.

Then Scripture is Read:
Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah:  (Is 9: 1-2)

The people who walked in darkness
Have  seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
A light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
And great rejoicing.

The Papa concludes:
The word of the Lord.
All respond:
Thanks be to God.

After a time of silence, all join in prayers of intercession and in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Papa invites:
Let us now pray for God’s blessing upon us and upon this wreath.

After a short silence, the Papa prays:
Lord our God, we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ: he is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples, he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us, he is the savior of every naion.

Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath.  May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation.  May he come quickly and not delay.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


The first candle is then lit.

The Papa says:
Let us bless the Lord.

All respond making the sign of the cross:
Thanks be to God.

The blessing concludes with a verse from “O Come, O  Come, Emmanuel.”
O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of mankind.
Bid every sad division cease
And be thyself our Prince of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

After the blessing, we feast and conclude the night with family prayers around the Advent wreath. We light our wreath at every meal and during family prayers. The girls and I begin each morning by praying around the wreath and asking Christ to come quickly and not delay. We finish each day with evening prayer around the wreath. In short, the Advent wreath is involved in all of the most important moments of the day. This is what I love about sacramentals like the Advent wreath. They're not just decorations that make the house look pretty and festive while they collect dust in the corner. Sacramentals share in and beautify the activity of the family. This is why they must be beautiful. 

We will post more about the Advent season in days to come. If you don't have an Advent wreath yet, it's not too late! I will conclude with a short meditation by one of my favorite authors, Sigrid Undset:

As our knowledge of nature has widened our picture of the time and space which God encompasses we lose, more and more, our ability to believe that the strength of the Almighty to permeate all things is indeed all-powerful. And involuntarily we picture God as a sort of cosmic landlord: it is impossible for Him to interest Himself in and to love each individual life which crawls on this remote speck of earth amidst the dancing of the myriad stars. Or we look on Him as a sort of Director General for the great combine of the United Solar Systems. He cannot know personally each little functionary who works on a small planet rotating around a sun of quite insignificant size...."

In the museums and monastic libraries of Europe there is volume after volume of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. If ever artists have worked to give their best and most beautiful without a thought of winning glory or credit for themselves it is certainly these anonymous painters whose identity is only occasionally discovered, and whose reward went to the whole brotherhood. This is indeed art for art's sake, pure, clean passion for beauty-inspired by the mind's constant occupation with the loveliness of God, who has created us in His image so that we also can realise the joy of creation. Year in and year out the craftsman sat and painted borders with flowers shining like jewels, with playful birds and clinging vines on the smooth, yellowish-white parchment. The frames, which the capital letters required, he filled out with a polished gold ground and with delightful small pictures, the faces of saints, not so big as wood-anemones, drawn with lines as fine as the veins in the anemone petals. Not for a moment would the artist contemplate that anyone else except himself should suspect what an amount of care and love he had put into his work, but each little flower was painted in order that it should be perfect in itself, without thought whether anyone was ever going to study it carefully. Perhaps this maker of pictures can help us, not to understand, but to get a glimmering of God's great love for His creation, which caused Him to come to His own as a little child in a crib and to die upon the cross to save each soul He had created in His image-to perfect one tiny little forget-me-not in the eternal manuscript of the universe.

May the Domestic Church also strive to "give their best and most beautiful without a thought of winning glory or credit for themselves," this Advent and always.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I am against blogs.  I do not like them.  I am highly suspicious of them.  Nevertheless, we (my wife and I) have thought about starting a blog for some time.  We knew we did not want to do anything that resembled many of the blogs we had read in the past.  Oftentimes blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc., have a pornographic quality.  

I have just been reminded that this is our very first entry and already I am saying something scandalous and offensive.  After all, this is a nice Catholic blog.  “No,” I reply, “this is not a nice Catholic blog.  This is a good Catholic blog.”  By this I mean that I will be honest.  Why do I say that much of the social media of today's "relevant" world is pornographic?   I mean that it is almost always used to show or reveal that which ought not to be revealed, and what is thoughtlessly revealed often becomes idly objectified. 

With increasing regularity, technology is used to expose.  People ramble on about their thoughts, idle moments, their grocery list and their dog's bad habits.  It is as though someone took all of the photos from a party and, without erasing any of the in-between shots, posted all of them online.  Exposure for the sake of exposure is treated as a virtue.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with revealing the truth?  The problem with this attitude is that authentic hiddenness is an intrinsic part of the human structure, not to mention the structure of creation.

Social networking and media, as the new currency of human relations, make exposure fast and cheap.  It is so fast and so cheap that there is very little room left for any other sort of dialogue or relationship.  Just as pornography claims to "expose everything," it simultaneously disallows the viewer from  seeing anything but the plastic facade of the presentation.  What is the difference between art celebrating the human nude form, found throughout the Vatican, and pornography?  The key distinction is that whereas one celebrates the mystery and splendor of humanity, the other denigrates and reduces it to something it isn't.  When we consider social networking and technology in this light, it becomes even more clear that modes of human dialogue have radically changed.  What has been lost?

I am convinced that one thing is for certain amidst the explosion of technology in the last several decades: we really have not thought through any of it.  As Catholics, it is our responsibility to do so.  Okay, strong words from the new blogger.  Question from the audience: Why the hell are you writing a blog?  Good question.  The simple answer is that we are not Neo-luddites.  We are convinced that there is a responsible way to utilize some of the tools available to us.  This blog is an attempt to do so.

Okay, so then what is the Forgotten Altars project all about?  Catholic culture is the most beautiful thing I know.  It is so rich, so full of texture.  Of course, it is radiant because it is salvific.  However, I think that there many ways in which Catholics are beginning to experience a cultural decline in the realm of the Domestic Church.  We want to focus on the Domestic Church as a sacred landscape, absolutely essential to the heartbeat of the Church.  How often do we celebrate the altars of the Domestic Church, the Dinner Table and the Marriage Bed?  Obviously I am not asking how often we eat food at the table or make love in our beds.  But how often are these activities celebrated as religious acts, in participation with the Godhead, the primary points of gravity in the topography of our vocations?  And to what extent is the reason we are anemic in this regard because we have forgotten the modes by which the domestic church has traditionally worshipped?

The first premise of this blog is quite simple: that there are many authentically Catholic familial traditions which have been forgotten.  The goal of this blog is to share our odyssey, first in performing an archeology of these traditions and, second, in trying to integrate these traditions in our modern lives.  This second part is important: it is no good trying to simply reenact the past.  Fact: we are moderns.  As moderns, we want to enter into dialogue and integrate our heritage as a young Catholic family.

None of this is to say that the current Catholic familial culture is bad, ugly or needs to be thrown out.  But it could be enriched, supplemented and I think a lot of young Catholic families are thirsty for it.  At any rate, we are.

Our second premise belongs to the domain of hope: it is that we as Catholics are not in a lost position but that we can respond to the world intelligently without resorting either to some sort of knee-jerk conservative or relativistic liberal self-identity.

So the purpose of this blog really is a practical one: to celebrate our heritage as a young Catholic family, recognizing our responsibility to reflect the Kingdom of God and to chart what we have learned for anyone who is also seeking for a more beautiful way to live.