Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Margarita for Martina

Today we celebrate the feast of one of the Roman martyrs, Saint Martina. Her story is similar to that of many other Roman virgin-martyrs: she was a steady witness to the Faith, devoted to the poor and a life of prayer, who endured multiple torture methods before finally returning Home via the removal of her head. There is, however, one interesting twist on the story: Legend has it that during this removal, her body bled milk, which is why she is one of the patron saints of nursing mothers.

On that appetizing note, here is a delicious beverage recipe to toast St. Martina while we await the land of milk and honey:

Honey Margarita

1 lime wedge
2 ounces anejo tequila
1/4 ounce Cointreau or other orange liqueur.
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 ounce honey
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce pineapple juice
1 thin jalapeno slice

Salt the rim of a cocktail glass.  Add tequila, Contreau, lime juice, honey, simple syrup, pineapple juice and jalapeno in shaker filled with ice.  Shake well.  Pour into glass.  Garnish with lime wedge.

(This recipe came from Joanne Weir's great book Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites)


Madonna and Child With St. Martina and St. Agnes; El Greco, 1597

A True "Prodigy of Science"

Ary Scheffer,  Saint 
Thomas Aquinas preaching
trust in God during 
a Tempest, 1824
In his book Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, Chesterton contrasts writing a biography of St. Francis of Assisi with the task of chronicling the life of Aquinas. "You can make a sketch of St. Francis; you could only make a plan of St. Thomas, like the plan of a labyrinthine city." Perhaps this is because, to continue to quote Chesterton, "St. Thomas takes the view that the souls of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people are quite as important as the souls of thinkers and truth-seekers, and he asks how all these people are possibly to find time for the amount of reasoning that is needed to find truth." Although he may be known for his high-minded theological treatises, Saint Thomas also left a rich legacy of letters, sermons, prayers and hymns directed to the "ordinary" souls that are just as profound in their simplicity...a legacy of "labyrinthine" proportions indeed.

Educators, students and parents of students can invoke the patronage of this great Saint with the following litany from Catholic Culture, as can pencil makers and victims of lightning strike (his sister died of lightning strike while he was sleeping in the same room), who also fall under his patronage:


Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ hear us. Christ, graciously hear us. 
God, the Father of heaven, Have mercy on us. God, the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy on us. God, the Holy Ghost, Have mercy on us. Holy Trinity, one God, Have mercy on us. 
Holy Mary, Pray for us. Glorious Mother of the King of kings, Pray for us. Saint Thomas of Aquin, Pray for us. Worthy child of the Queen of Virgins, Pray for us. St. Thomas most chaste, Pray for us. St. Thomas most patient, Pray for us. Prodigy of science, Pray for us. Silently eloquent, Pray for us. Reproach of the ambitious, Pray for us. Lover of that life which is hidden with Christ in God, Pray for us. Fragrant flower in the parterre of Saint Dominic, Pray for us. Glory of the Friars Preachers, Pray for us. Illumined from on high, Pray for us. Angel of the Schools, Pray for us. Oracle of the Church, Pray for us. Incomparable scribe of the Man-God, Pray for us. Satiated with the odor of His perfumes, Pray for us. Perfect in the school of His Cross, Pray for us. Intoxicated with the strong wine of His charity, Pray for us. Glittering gem in the cabinet of the Lord, Pray for us. Model of perfect obedience, Pray for us. Endowed with the true spirit of holy poverty, Pray for us.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Spare us, O Lord. Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Graciously hear us, O Lord. Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Have mercy on us.
Antiphon: Oh, how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory, for the memory thereof is immortal, because it is known with God and man, and it triumpheth crowned forever. 

V. What have I in heaven, or what do I desire on earth! R. That art the God of my heart, and my portion forever.
Let us pray. O God, Who past ordained that blessed Thomas should enlighten Thy Church, grant that through his prayers we may practice what he taught. Through Christ Our Lord. R. Amen.


And let us not forget the beautiful hymns and prayers written by St. Thomas, which include Sacris solemniis, Verbum supernum prodiens, Pangue lingua gloriosi and Adoro te devote, which, to our mind, stand alongside the Angelic Doctor's theological writings as some of the most precious treasures of the Church. The prayers before and after Communion are especially beautiful:

Prayer before Communion

Almighty and ever-living God, I approach the sacrament of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.  Lord, in your great generosity, heal my sickness, wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness.

May I receive the bread of angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with humble reverence, with the purity and faith, the repentance and love, and the determined purpose that will help to bring me to salvation.  May I receive the sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood, and its reality and power.
Kind God, may I receive the Body of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary, and so be received into His mystical Body and numbered among his members.  Loving Father, as on my earthly pilgrimage I now receive your beloved Son, under the veil of a sacrament, may I one day see Him Face to face in glory, who lives and reigns with You for ever.


Prayer after Communion

Lord, Father all-powerful and ever-living God, I thank You, for even though I am a sinner, your unprofitable servant, not because of my worth but in the kindness of your mercy, You have fed me with the precious Body and Blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
I pray that this Holy Communion may not bring me condemnation and punishment but forgiveness and salvation.
May It be a helmet of faith and a shield of good will.  May It purify me from evil ways and put an end to my evil passions.
May It bring me charity and patience, humility and obedience, and growth in the power to do good.
May It be my strong defense against all my enemies, visible and invisible, and the perfect calming of all my evil impulses, bodily and spiritual.
May It unite me more closely to You, the one true God, and lead me safely through death to everlasting happiness with You.
And I pray that You will lead me, a sinner, to the banquet where You, with your Son and Holy Spirit, are true and perfect light, total fulfillment,
everlasting joy, gladness without end, and perfect happiness to your saints.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray For Us!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Converting Burns Night

Conversion of St. Paul, Cranach the Younger
Burns Night or Burns Supper is celebrated on January 25th by Scots throughout the world, to wish the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, a very happy birthday.  The dinner begins with the Selkirk Grace: "Some hae meat and canna eat, an some wad eat that want it, but we ha meat and we can eat and so let the Lord be thankit."  This is followed by the Entrance of the Haggis, a delicious and savoury pudding made of sheep heart, liver, lung minced with oatmeal, suet, onion and spices packed and cooked (traditionally) in a sheep's stomach, which is formally marched in from the kitchen by a piper playing "A Mans a Man for a That".  The host then recites Robert Burn's humorous "Ode to a Haggis" (see video at the bottom of the post) culminating in a scotch whisky toast to the haggis.  Following dinner, the rest of the evening is filled with toasts, including the 'Toast to the Lassies' and the 'Toast to the Laddies', poetry recitations (of Burns or not) as well as music and dance.
Robert "Rabbie" Burns

Burns Night is a beautiful example of a traditional cultural event that ought to be baptized into the Church by any Catholic Scot or in fact any Catholic open to wearing a kilt.  Perhaps at first glance Robert Burns and his night are not likely candidates for baptism.  The son of a strict Presbyterian Scotland, Catholicism was something foreign to him, although perhaps not because he was himself a faithful member of the kirk.  Indeed, many a fervent minister had it out for Robbie, as did several of the parents of their parishes: seven of Robbie's twelve children were illegitimate.   Sinner.  Yes, that is exactly what the Presbyterians thought too.  Luckily, Burns had the good fortune to be born on January 25th, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, so as to disallow us from thinking too poorly of him.  St. Paul had a bad habit of killing and imprisoning Christians before Christ saw fit to knock him off his horse and blind him into conversion.  Good things are Catholic.  Christ has a tendency of claiming them for his own.

So what does Burns have that is good, that is worth claiming?  It is interesting that one of Robbie's early fans was the Catholic Bishop of Dunkeld, Dr. John Geddes.  Indeed, the bishop made sure that five Catholic seminaries were sent publications containing Burn's poetry.  What is it that Bishop Geddes saw in Burn's poetry that made him believe that it would somehow be helpful to the formation of his priests?  Without a doubt, the Bard's poetry is as different from the stark Presbyterianism as the poet was himself.  Filled with an innate sense of hope, joy, an appreciation for (usually feminine) beauty, a sensitivity for the delicate and imbued with strong sense of honor, Burn's poetry gleams brightly in a pre-Romantic, 18th Century Scotland.  "To a Mouse" for instance, illustrates a unique Burnsian gentleness.  His "Mans a Man for a That" cherishes the innate good of mankind.  His Jacobite verses, wistfully recalling the Catholic Stuart monarchy whose dreams had perished at Culloden, express the soul of nobility.  At any rate, if we still have difficulty entirely embracing the man, his supper ought to be an entirely different matter.  A night of poetry, feasting and toasts:  what could be more Catholic?

Speaking of good Catholic toasts, while Scotch is the official drink of Burns Night, Atholl Brose is a fanatastic supplement to any good Scottish festivity.  An ancient drink developed by the Duke of Atholl in the 15th Century, it was first crafted as a tool of war.  Iain Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, was raising a great highland rebellion, which the Duke of Atholl was attempting to quell.  The Macdonald held a well fortified position and Atholl was in dire need of reinforcements.  Although poisoning water the water hole is as old as warfare itself, the Duke put his own signiture spin on the tactic:  he dumped oatmeal, honey and whisky in the well.  Not only did this contaminate the well but it inebriated the rebels and gave them a false sense of security.  Having bought the time he needed for reinforcements, as the enemy drank and were merry, Atholl dispatched the enemy with ease.  Here is a recipe from the fantastic book Strong Waters by Scott Mansfield for this warlike drink:


1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
3 cups water
1/4 cup (3 ounces) honey
1 cup whipping cream
2 cups Scotch whisky

1.)  Put the oats in a nylon straining bag and place the bag in a deep bowl.  Add the water and let the oats steep overnight.
2.)  The next morning, squeeze the water out of the bag.  Put the liquid in the saucepan, add honey, and heat gently until the honey dissolves.
3.)  Stir in the cream, then add the whisky.
4.)  Refrigerate until cool before serving.  The beverage will keep in the refrrigerator for a couple months, or in the freezer indefinitely.

Slainte Mhath, Here tae ye!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Traditional Catholic Ways to Get a Husband

St. Agnes
Finding a spouse is not always a straightforward process for the single discerning Catholic.  Of course, finding that special someone is never easy, but it is especially difficult for Catholics.  Believing that marriage is a permanent condition, at least in this life (and the Catholic is perhaps the most prone of all Christians to believe in his or her marriage's continued celebration in the next life), brings a certain intensity to the Catholic courting process.  Previously, arranged marriages eliminated all of these difficulties, making the discernment process as economical as possible.  However, times have changed and the era of choices and options has complicated the matter.  Many young Catholics plan to marry early and go to college with that very intention as their focus. Of course, for those who fail to achieve their MRS degree in undergrad, there is grad school or Catholic dating sites but, alas, many Catholics seem to be frustrated with the depth and breadth of the Catholic pool.

However, if all else fails, there are some traditional methods for seeking out the Beloved.  In England and Scotland, on the Eve of St. Agnes' feast day, girls would fast and go to bed stark naked, believing that they would be granted dreams of a feast with the one they were provedentially fated to wed.  Unfortunately, this method does not come without some risks.  For instance, in Keats' lengthy poem The Eve of St. Agnes, Madelaine is tricked into believing that the appearance of young man Porphyro is a dream and they end up in indelicate circumstances.  We are led to believe that this episode ends in marriage; nonetheless, the poem does seem to suggest that this particular technique has certain drawbacks.  On the whole, it may be safer to simply celebrate Saint Agnes' feast day without trying to demand any explicit information from the tricky saint.  After all, as anyone with experience knows, Catholic or not, you are least likely to find that special someone when you force the situation.  Nevertheless, we have every reason to believe that St. Agnes favors an expedient union with one's Beloved, although her own manner of securing a spouse also implies some danger.  Her famous parting words to a reluctant executioner were: "Strike, without fear, for the bride does her Spouse an injury if she makes Him wait."
Madelaine and Porphyro off to Wed following an Indelicate Situation
"The Eve of St. Agnes" by William Holman Hunt

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

St. Anthony of the Desert

Our family has always felt an intimate attachment to St. Anthony of the Desert.  This is, perhaps, odd. In one sense, it would be hard to imagine a personage more remote from our own lives than Anthony: He lived in the 3rd and 4th Centuries on the fringe of the world in the Nitrian Desert, battling demons and consuming insects, and his brief interactions with others were primarily restricted to those who were at least as mad as he was.  However, perhaps it is this very remoteness which finds such a kinship in our lives.  Perhaps we need such reminders of what madmen we in fact are called to be, in the very radicality of our Faith.  As for consorting with the insane, several members of the family fit the bill.

In his colorful and much too short account of the great desert saint and father of monasticism, St. Athanasius describes the last moments of St. Anthony's life:

"Having summoned those who were there--they were two in number who had remained in the mountain fifteen years, practising the discipline and attending on Antony on account of his age--he said to them, 'I, as it is written, go the way of the fathers, for I perceive that I am called by the Lord, And do you be watchful and destroy not your long discipline, but as though now making a beginning, zealously preserve your determination. For ye know the treachery of the demons, how fierce they are, but how little power they have Where fore fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him. Live as though dying daily. Give heed to yourselves, and remember the admonition you have heard from me. Have no fellowship with the schismatics, nor any dealings at all with the heretical Arians. For you know how I shunned them on account of their hostility to Christ, and the strange doctrines of their heresy. Therefore be the more earnest always to be followers first of God and then of the Saints; that after death they also may receive you as well-known friends into the eternal habitations... Bury my body, therefore, and hide it underground yourselves, and let my words be observed by you that no one may know the place but you alone. For at the resurrection of the dead I shall receive it incorruptible from the Saviour. And divide my garments. To Athanasius the bishop give one sheepskin and the garment whereon I am laid, which he himself gave me new, but which with me has grown old. To Serapion the bishop give the other sheepskin, and keep the hair garment yourselves. For the rest fare ye well, my children, for Antony is departing, and is with you no more.'

 Having said this, when they had kissed him, he lifted up his feet, and as though he saw friends coming to him and was glad because o them--for as he lay his countenance appeared joyful--he died and was gathered to the fathers. And they afterward, according to his commandment, wrapped him up and buried him, hiding his body underground. And no one knows to this day where it was buried, save those two only. But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Antony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Antony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions."

St. Anthony has been the inspiration of many, and we are especially fascinated by the artwork throughout the ages that depicts various moments in his life. Artists seem to be especially interested in his battles with demons (and understandably so). Here are just a few of the paintings of these momentous desert battles, from Michelangelo to Dali:

"The Torment of Saint Anthony"--and Michelangelo's oldest known painting, c. 1487-1488

"Temptations of St. Anthony" by Bernadino Parenzano, c. 1494
"The Temptation of St. Anthony"; Jacopo Tintoretto; c. 1577

"The Temptation of St. Anthony"; Paul Cezanne; 1875

"The Temptation of St. Anthony"; Salvador Dali; c. 1946

And it appears that these epic encounters are also inspiring to cooks. In Spain, it is the tradition to cook "Olla de San Anton," a soup that uses virtually every part of a pig that is available in butcher shops, including the blood. This tradition is based on the legend that the devil often appeared to St. Anthony in the form of a pig. Here's a traditional recipe we would like to make some day, when blood sausage is as common as it should be in American meat markets and grocery stores. Forgive the awkward translation; its from a Spanish site:

  • 1/2 Kg of dry broad-bean
  • 200 g of white beans
  • 1 onion
  • 1 sweet pepper
  • 1 garlic
  • 1 bone of marrow
  • 1 bone of ham
  • 200 g of pork ribs
  • 200 g of fat streaky bacon
  • 1 pork ear
  • 1 pork tail
  • 1 thyme branch
  • 2 fennel leaf
  • 2 rice glass
  • 3 potatoes
  • salt
  • blood sausage
Soak the broad-beans and the beans the day before. 
Peel the onion and cut it in two parts, wash the bones of marrow and ham, and put the ingredients (except the bloody sausage, the rice, and the potatoes), in a pot full of water. Let it cook slowly for one hour and half. 
During this time, peal the potatoes and cut it in pieces, drop it in the pot with the rice and the bloody sausage.
Let cook twenty minutes more and serve it hot.

For those of us who don't have easy access to pig ears, feet and blood, here's a tamer recipe that we make from the book Monastery Soups. The original recipe is vegetarian, but we like to add pork sausage or chorizo on this particular feast day. 


3 tablespoons oil of choice
1 cup barley
1 carrot, finely grated
2 leeks, sliced
1 bay leaf
1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced
salt to taste
7 cups water
1 bouillon cube (or you can use broth in place of the water)
chopped mushrooms
1 pound pork sausage or chorizo


1. Heat the oil in a soup pot and add the barley, stirring continuously for one minute. Immediately add the carrot, leeks, bay leaf, parsley, salt, and water.
2. Cook the sausage in a separate skillet and add to the soup.
3. Cook the soup over low to medium heat, covered, for 40 to 45 minutes, until the barley is tender. Add more water if needed. For extra taste, add the bouillon and the mushrooms during the last 20 minutes of simmering. Remove the bay leaf. Serve hot.

St. Anthony the Great, Pray for Us!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Land and Liturgy

Anyone who has followed this blog since we started back in November can probably tell that we are interested in getting "back to the earth." Although we're not currently in a place where we can truly live the agrarian life, it is a family aspiration that we pray will be fulfilled someday. We often find ourselves longing for the day when we can truly immerse ourselves in the earth and face the challenges and joys that it will bring.

In the meantime, we have plenty of things to learn that don't require a plot of land. We have already begun to discover the joy that comes from working as a family. Even simple activities like brewing beer, baking bread and canning have already drawn us closer to one another and enriched our spiritual life. To my mind, this is where the old dichotomy between soul and body begins to fall apart. The soul of our family is enlivened by these earthy, bodily activities. It is a new way of discovering Christ, of encountering His presence in day-to-day life.

As expressed in this great blog post by D. Rose, however, the desire to live the agrarian life and do "old fashioned" things isn't simply an attempt to step back in time. What is attractive about the agrarian life isn't only its deep connection with the land and bygone days. To my mind, one of the things that makes the agrarian life most attractive is its connection to the Catholic liturgical year. In our fast-paced society, rife with deadlines, networking and constant communication, it can be so difficult to establish any kind of rhythm. What I notice about the lives of men and women of old is that their lives were regulated by liturgy, and that the liturgy was, more frequently than not, in dialogue with the seasons. The liturgy was not a detached "issue" that one could converse and read about. It was not just something that happened on Sundays and Holy Days. The liturgy informed each and every day of the year. To be "in season" was not simply a statement of fashion; rather, the seasons were seen as themselves liturgical.

To put it more clearly, living the agrarian life seems to provide at least some protection against the  "formlessness" of modern living, as  A. Ellison of Catholic Phoenix puts it so perfectly. To live in accordance with the cycles of the seasons, in a strange combination of self-sufficiency as well as absolute dependence on the yield of earth and sky...what could be more opposed to the open-ended, "on demand," anything-goes metronome that is, so often, modern life? And would this not be more conducive to submission to Providence than the illusion of endless creativity?

To that end, we're happy to enter into the newest rhythm of the liturgical season:

Yes, Carnival!! (But no, not that kind of carnival. The term actually derives from the Latin, "Carne--vale!", or "Meat---farewell!") This "unofficial season" is perhaps more tied to the flesh than to the land. As noted at Fish Eaters, during carnival " Catholics want to eat while they can and get the frivolity out of their systems in preparation for the somber Lenten spirit to come." The carnival season begins after the feast of the Epiphany and continues until Shrove Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday (otherwise known as "Mardi Gras"). During this time, the Church calls her members to celebrate with dancing, social events, and of course, good food and drink. 

Naturally, as noted at New Advent, "It is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional licence in the way of frolic and good cheer. No appeal to vague and often inconsistent traces of earlier pagan customs seems needed to explain the general observance of a carnival celebration." Apparently the Italians were especially prone to carnival excesses, so much so that Pope Benedict XIV instituted a plenary indulgence for anyone in the Papal States who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for three days during carnival season. As for our family, we plan to enjoy a lot of hearty beef stews, expand our knowledge of cheese and, of course, continue to enjoy our Christmas brew (which is still a little green, but hopefully it will finish up before Lent begins!) 

Happy Carnival everyone!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blessing of Homes

A few posts back, we mentioned the blessing that we always pray when we finish a batch of beer.  This past Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany, and one of the oldest traditions for the feast is to bless your home. Although the feast of the Epiphany is the traditional time to bless your home, you can do it at any time of the year. The blessing can be done either by a priest or by the father of the family. If possible, have the incense, holy water and chalk blessed beforehand. We found this great blessing of homes at

Peace be to this house.
And to all who dwell herein.
From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For He hath regarded the humility of His handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is His Name. And His Mercy is from generation unto generations upon them that fear Him. He hath shewed might in His arm, He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel, His servant, being mindful of His mercy. As He spoke to our Fathers, Abraham and His seed forever.
From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.
Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and  forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead and lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
All they from Saba shall come
Bringing gold and frankincense.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
And let my cry come unto Thee.
Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.
Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee-- Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.
And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.
Let us pray. Bless, O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, walk through the house and bless each room by sprinkling with Epiphany water and incensing it.

Take the blessed chalk and first write the initials of the three Wise Men, connected with Crosses, over the inside of your front door (on the lintel, if possible). Then write the year, breaking up the numbers and the year so that they fall on both sides of the initials. It should look like this, for ex.:

20  C+M+B  05

with the "20 "being the millennium and century, the "C" standing for the first Wise Man, Caspar, the "M" standing for Melchior, the "B" standing for Balthasar, and the "05" standing for the decade and year. It is also popularly believed that the Kings' initials also stand for "Christus mansionem benedicat" ("Christ bless this house").

A blessed 2012 to all our readers!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"She Seeks Wool and Flax, and Works With Willing Hands"

“Kristina packed her wool cards, her knitting needles, sheep shears and her swingle, a betrothal gift from Karl Oskar, who had painted red flowers on it. A great deal she left because it would take up too much ship space, things she knew she would need later. She could not take her loom or her flax brake, her spinning-wheel or her yarn winder, her spooling wheel or her flax comb. She had been accustomed to working with all these implements; they were intimate and familiar to her hands; she knew that she would miss them in the foreign land.”

I can’t help using this blog post to spread the word about some of my new favorite novels by Vilhelm Moberg. The novels depict the immigration of a group of Swedish peasants to the new land. I found the books absolutely enthralling, though also heartbreaking. The novels take place only a century ago, which is almost unbelievable when you consider the use of technology in the story compared to our technology today. As an example, consider the passage above. Domestic activities like knitting, crocheting etc. are often thought to be  difficult and troublesome. And yet not only does Kristina, the wife of main character Karl Oskar, knit and weave the family’s clothing, but she also makes the yarn with her own hands. And she longs for her tools and the labor of her hands when she must part with them to cross the ocean and start a new life.

When I read books like this I long for that simplicity, that intimacy between the hand and the tool. And yet I am so lazy and easily intimidated. Case in point:  Last Christmas, my husband’s family gave me a drop spindle and several bundles of roving to be made into yarn for knitting. I was thrilled and touched by this gift, but I will admit that I was also intimidated. Never mind that women have been spinning for centuries. 

Fortunately, the Good Lord has a way of making things more accessible to little me. A few months ago (yes, almost a year after I received the spindle and roving), while at the downtown Open Air market, my husband sent me to sample the bloody Mary mix on the other side of the market. Thank goodness he did. Not only was the bloody Mary mix delicious, but on the way, I also happened to stumble (literally, in fact) upon a booth with homespun yarn, as well as other goodies like homemade goat cheese and goatmilk soaps. I glimpsed a drop spindle behind the counter and inquired immediately. Turned out, the woman who ran the booth was starting a spinning class in three weeks! Not only was she going to instruct the students in two types of spinning, but she was also demonstrating how to wash, card and hand-dye wool with natural plant dyes. I was beyond excited and signed up the next day.  I completed the class in October and am so grateful I took it.

In the meantime, you might wonder: what does this have to do with the Forgotten Altars project? There are a few reasons. Firstly, spinning is a meditative art. I’ve noticed that some activities (making bread, gardening, brewing, and even cleaning) are noticeably conducive to prayer. They make me want to pray and put me in a posture of openness, much like what I seek to achieve during contemplative prayer. Spinning may top the list when it comes to work that inspires prayer. The monastic “ora et labora” is particularly easy to achieve while spinning. 

Second, spinning is a feminine art that connects us to our ancestors. I once took pride in the fact that I didn't do anything "domestic," including cooking, sewing, crafting or anything of the sort. To do so would be old-fashioned and backwards. I think this mentality is common. Ironically, as women gain access more and more to the things that men do, they lose touch with what were once considered to be the feminine arts. Not just arts and crafts, but true art, techne. Women used to work with their hands. We lucky housewives of today have ready-made clothes and Clorox wipes that are pre-soaked in sanitizing solution for easy cleaning. These conveniences certainly make life easier, and I won't say that I don't use them myself. But at times I actually wish that I had the pressure these women had to truly be the matron of the household. To truly clothe my own children--not just by purchasing their clothes, but by spinning the very fabric with my own hands. When I am spinning, I feel a sense of kinship with women of past ages. 

And, on a practical level, spinning is the perfect activity for a busy housewife with little ones. It is meditative, simple and so enjoyable.  Children can do it too—my three-year-old is halfway there! In coming weeks, I will provide a few posts with more specifics on the process. In the meantime, here is a collection of a few artworks that depict women spinning.

Labor in the City, France, 15th century (A depiction of Aristotle's polis)

St. Margaret and Olibrius; 1450
Woman With a Spindle; Antoine Watteau

And one of my personal favorites...

The Child Mary Spinning; 17th century Peruvian

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Scandalous Event

  As the Christmas season draws to a close, I thought I would share a passage from Hans Urs von Balthasar's beautiful book, simply entitled "Prayer." I started reading this book several months ago during my weekly hour of adoration and am so glad I did. It's the first book I have read by von Balthazar, and I am in awe not only of his obvious ability as a scholar and theologian, but also in his ability to articulate both the struggles and the true gift of authentic contemplative prayer. I was also amazed at how pertinent my weekly readings were to the liturgical year. For example, here is an excerpt from the passage I was fortunate to read the week before Christmas: 

"Unless a person is acquainted with trembling awe, reaching down to the very ground of his  being, at the thought of God's nature (not merely the awe he feels in the face of the "mysteries of existence" and the deep things of the world), he will not be ready for the contemplation of Jesus Christ...Otherwise he will be in danger of coming to Christ like someone blind and dumb, finding nothing more in Him than an example of perfect humanity; such a person would not be contemplating God, but man, i.e., himself. Anyone contemplating the life of Jesus needs to be newly and more deeply aware every day that something impossible, something scandalous has occurred: that God, in His absolute Being, has resolved to manifest Himself in a human life (and is in a position to make this resolve effective!). He must be scandalized by this, he must feel his mind reeling, the very ground giving way beneath his feet; he must at least experience that "ecstasy" of non-comprehension which transported Jesus' contemporaries. They are amazed, beside themselves, stupefied, overwhelmed; their reason abandons them (literally). And this happens again and again. In the face of His understanding, His reason, they lose theirs, so the suggestion arises that He Himself has lost His reason, is beside Himself...In the Gospel, anyone who encounters Christ is impelled either to worship Him or to pick up stones with which to stone Him. Evidently, the Gospel does not foresee any other kind of response."

The picture I've featured in this post (and similar paintings of the Nursing Madonna, or "Maria Lactans") is often considered to be scandalous because of the Blessed Mother's exposed breast. What is truly scandalous is the Blessed Infant's state of absolute dependence on His Blessed Mother, that God Himself was sustained on human milk and that the suckling infant was Emmanuel, God With Us. This is the true scandal of the Christmas season: the radical vulnerability of the Creator Himself.