Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Fast and a Feast

Having a fast day during Lent may seem redundant, but our dear friend Jacobus de Voraigne makes a valid point in The Golden Legend: " ...these fastings here begin in March in the first week of the Lent, to the end that vices wax dry in us, for they may not all be quenched." Nothing like a little fasting do quench those vices. We already discussed the more penitential aspects of Ember days here, although we didn't touch so much on an another important aspect of the traditional Ember days: that is, their relation to the seasons and to the harvest.

Although de Voraigne does not explicitly link all of the Ember Days to traditional  cycles, with the exception of the Fall Ember Day, which corresponds to harvest time, they have been used as a predictor for the seasons and are even listed in the Farmer's Almanac. In fact, now that the Ember Days are not technically classified as days of fasting, our primary task as Catholics is " offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks," according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar. 

I find that prayers of thanksgiving for the bounty of the Earth always leave me longing for more. It's as if I am thanking Him for something that I haven't really touched with my hands and seen with my eyes. I know that the land is bountiful, that God has blessed it abundantly, and yet our distance from the Earth, from the dirt, becomes all too apparent on these days. We recently watched the short film "Fresh" (which is available to watch online for free until March 3rd if you haven't already seen it), at the recommendation of a friend, and it left us longing for the day when we can truly appreciate the bounty of God's creation. Until then, we join with the Psalmist in praying:

"Thou visitest the earth and waterest it,
thou greatly enrichest it;
the river of God is full of water;
thou providest their grain,
for so thou hast prepared it.
Thou waterest its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
Thou crownest the year with thy bounty;
the tracks of thy chariot drip with fatness.
The pastures of the wilderness drip,
the hills gird themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing toether for joy."

 Speaking of David and his namesakes, March 1st is the traditional feast of St. David, patron saint of Wales. St. David's birth was foretold by Saint Patrick, to whom it was revealed by an angel. Like most ancient Welsh saints, there are many legends surrounding Saint David. Here's a brief bit from New Advent about his later life as a monk:

"St. David journeyed throughout the West, founding or restoring twelve monasteries (among which occur the great names of Glastonbury, Bath, and Leominster), and finally settled in the Vale of Ross, where he and his monks lived a life of extreme austerity. Here occurred the temptations of his monks by the obscene antics of the maid-servants of the wife of Boia, a local chieftan. Here also his monks tried to poison him, but St. David, warned by St. Scuthyn, who crossed from Ireland in one night on the back of a sea-monster, blessed the poisoned bread and ate it without harm."

The Welsh have long been friends of the Scots in their fight against English and Saxon oppression, and they also have a wonderful flag. That's enough for us to consider them comrades. Traditionally, St. David's Day is celebrated with leek soup. According to legend, in a battle against the Saxons, St. David told Welsh troops to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish them from the enemy.  For Shakespeare fans, this should remind you of Fluellen from Henry V.   Here's one of our favorite recipes from Monastery Soups, with a few variations, that also happens to be appropriate for this penitential season:

Traditional Austrian Cheese Soup (we can pretend it's Welsh soup for now)

4 tbsp. butter
2 finely sliced celery stalks
2 leeks, sliced
2 large potatoes, cut into cubes
6 c. chicken broth
1 8oz. pkg. cream cheese, cut into small cubes and softened
1 8oz. container of yogurt
salt and pepper

Pour oil into soup pot, add veggies, and stir constantly for about 2 minutes. Add water and bring to boil. Lower heat to medium, cover pot, and cook soup slowly for 35-40 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add cream cheese, yogurt, salt, and pepper. Stir continuously until melted and blended thoroughly with rest of soup. Serves 4 to 6.

It's that simple! Make sure the soup isn't too hot when you add the cream cheese and yogurt to avoid clumps. And it really does help to soften the cream cheese.

To conclude, here are Saint David's last words to his fellow monks:

"Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfil. Lords, brothers and sisters, be cheerful, keep the faith, and do those little things which ye have seen me do and heard me say."

St. David, Pray For Us!

St. David's Cathedral, Wales

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Patriarch

The Pope celebrated the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which normally falls on February 22nd, last Sunday with 22 new cardinals. The Pope spoke of the Vatican Chair in his homily:

"Dear brothers and sisters, this Gospel episode that has been proclaimed to us finds a further and more eloquent explanation in one of the most famous artistic treasures of this Vatican Basilica: the altar of the Chair. After passing through the magnificent central nave, and continuing past the transepts, the pilgrim arrives in the apse and sees before him an enormous bronze throne that seems to hover in mid air, but in reality is supported by the four statues of great Fathers of the Church from East and West. And above the throne, surrounded by triumphant angels suspended in the air, the glory of the Holy Spirit shines through the oval window. What does this sculptural composition say to us, this product of Bernini’s genius? It represents a vision of the essence of the Church and the place within the Church of the Petrine Magisterium."

Often in the midst of political crises and changes in leadership, it is easy to forget the true "Servant of the Servants of God." Although the Papal title "Patriarch of the West" may be obsolete for some, we would do well to remember our "Papa" here in the West,  particularly in the confusion and disillusion that so often permeates our culture. 

Pope Benedict XVI has done so much to encourage and build a Catholic culture in the face of our modern challenges. This Lent we are reading an excellent book of Lenten meditations that he wrote while still a cardinal. In fact, the meditations were written in 1983, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the annual Lenten Papal retreat for Pope John Paul II. In the first chapter Pope Benedict recalls Christ's own retreat into the desert:

"...the desert is a place of silence, of solitude. It is the absence of the exchanges of daily life, its noise and its superficiality. The desert is the place of the absolute, the place of freedom, which sets man before the ultimate demands. Not by chance is the desert the place where monotheism began. In that sense it is a place of grace. In putting aside all preoccupations man encounters his Creator."

The Pope goes on to briefly summarize the importance of the image of desert throughout salvation history:

" entering into the desert, Jesus enters also into the history of the salvation of his people, the chosen people. This history begins with the going out from Egypt, with the forty years of wandering in the desert; at the heart of these forty years we find the forty days of Moses on the mount, the days of being face-to-face with God, days of absolute fast, days away from his people in the solitude of the cloud, on the top of the mountain; from these days flows the fountain of revelation. Again, we find the forty days in the life of Elijah who-persecuted by King Ahab-went forty days' journey into the desert, so returning to the starting point of the covenant, to God's voice speaking and a new beginning in the history of salvation.

Jesus enters into this history, into the temptations of his people, into the temptations of Moses, even as Moses offered the sacred exchange: to be blotted out of the book of life for the salvation of his people. So Jesus will be the Lamb of God, who carries the sins of the world, the true Moses, who is truly 'in the bosom of the Father,' face-to-face with him and revealing him. He is truly the fountain of living water in the desert of the world, he who not only speaks but is the word of life: way, truth and life."

 As we join Our Lord in the desert this Lent, let us remember our "Papa," particularly during this week when he, like Popes before him, prepares for his own Papal retreat.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Vans to Beat the Air"

"The Public Expulsion of Penitents from the Church on Ash Wednesday" 
T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, Part I 
 Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign? 
Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
  nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, "The Fast Day Meal"

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shrove Tuesday Preparation

In two days, Catholics begin the Lenten journey, and there's no better way to prepare for an extended period of fasting and solemnity than to have a feast. Many of the original Shrove Tuesday celebrations were much more innocent than the infamous Mardi Gras debauchery that goes on nowadays, although there have certainly always been excesses associated with the day. Chickens had it particularly rough.

"In some places it was common practice to put a cock in an earthenware vessel made for the purpose, with holes for it to stick its head and tail out, and strung up about 4 metres above street; people would throw stones till it broke, and the winner got the chook [chicken]."

Hens also had their share of hardship:

"This was another popular pastime in Olde England that chickens didn’t look forward to. A hen was put on a man's back, everyone else was blindfolded with maids' aprons and the man had horse bells hung on him. They had to hit the hen with boughs. After this the hen was eaten with bacon, pancakes and fritters."

And lazy women received their just punishment:

"Any woman known to lie in bed too long, or be slack in any way, had the first pancake presented to her. It was customary that no one would eat it, so it was given to the dog."

But the primary victim on Shrove Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday himself. As noted in Fraser's Golden Bough (which, Wittgensteinian philosophical objections aside, has some fantastic descriptions of traditional feasts and customs):

"In Normandy on the evening of Ash Wednesday it used to be the custom to hold a celebration called the Burial of Shrove Tuesday. A squalid effigy scantily clothed in rags, a battered old hat crushed down on his dirty face, his great round paunch stuffed with straw, represented the disreputable old rake who, after a long course of dissipation, was now about to suffer for his sins. Hoisted on the shoulders of a sturdy fellow, who pretended to stagger under the burden, this popular personification of the Carnival promenaded the streets for the last time in a manner the reverse of triumphal. Preceded by a drummer and accompanied by a jeering rabble, among whom the urchins and all the tag-rag and bobtail of the town mustered in great force, the figure was carried about by the flickering light of torches to the discordant din of shovels and tongs, pots and pans, horns and kettles, mingled with hootings, groans, and hisses. From time to time the procession halted, and a champion of morality accused the broken-down old sinner of all the excesses he had committed and for which he was now about to be burned alive. The culprit, having nothing to urge in his own defence, was thrown on a heap of straw, a torch was put to it, and a great blaze shot up, to the delight of the children who frisked round it screaming out some old popular verses about the death of the Carnival. Sometimes the effigy was rolled down the slope of a hill before being burnt."

Apparently, the Shrove Tuesday man wasn't always stuffed with straw; in the Ardennes, an unfortunate incident put a halt to Shrove Tuesday celebrations for centuries:

"In some villages of the Ardennes a young man of flesh and blood, dressed up in hay and straw, used to act the part of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), as the personification of the Carnival is often called in France after the last day of the period which he personates. He was brought before a mock tribunal, and being condemned to death was placed with his back to a wall, like a soldier at a military execution, and fired at with blank cartridges. At Vrigne-aux-Bois one of these harmless buffoons, named Thierry, was accidentally killed by a wad that had been left in a musket of the firing-party. When poor Shrove Tuesday dropped under the fire, the applause was loud and long, he did it so naturally; but when he did not get up again, they ran to him and found him a corpse. Since then there have been no more of these mock executions in the Ardennes."

Apologies for the numerous quotes in this post, but these descriptions are hard to replicate. Perhaps the best summary of traditional Shrove Tuesday we could find comes from Sir Walter Scott in The Fair Maid of Perth:

"...the evening being that of Shrovetide, or, as it was called in Scotland, Fastern's E'en, the vigils of gaiety were by far the most frequented of the three. The common people had, throughout the day, toiled and struggled at football; the nobles and gentry had fought cocks, and hearkened to the wanton music of the minstrel; while the citizens had gorged themselves upon pancakes fried in lard, and brose, or brewis--the fat broth, that is, in which salted beef had been boiled, poured upon highly toasted oatmeal, a dish which even now is not ungrateful to simple, old fashioned Scottish palates. These were all exercises and festive dishes proper to the holiday. It was no less a solemnity of the evening that the devout Catholic should drink as much good ale and wine as he had means to procure; and, if young and able, that he should dance at the ring, or figure among the morrice dancers, who, in the city of Perth, as elsewhere, wore a peculiarly fantastic garb, and distinguished themselves by their address and activity. All this gaiety took place under the prudential consideration that the long term of Lent, now approaching, with its fasts and deprivations, rendered it wise for mortals to cram as much idle and sensual indulgence as they could into the brief space which intervened before its commencement."

So ready your beef, your lard, your pancake ingredients, your wine and ale, and your chickens! And here's a little rhyme for the wee ones to memorize and recite:

Shrove Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday,
Poor Jack went to plough.
His mother made pancakes,
But she didn't know how.
She tossed them, she turned them,
She made them all black.
She put so much pepper,
She poisoned poor Jack. 



Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Importance of Image in the Domestic Church

Part I. A Modern Dichotomy: Separating Beauty from Life

Our culture today has a tendency of discounting the "visual" as being superficial and unimportant.

I remember when we got married, we felt it was important to have the wedding in a beautiful church (i.e. not a building shaped rather like a missile silo or a granary storage unit).  After we had reserved a church for the occasion we received criticism for not being willing to get married in the church down the street, no matter how ugly it was.  "After all" we were told, "it is what goes on inside that matters.  Not how it looks."

Now, while I have to agree that the foundational requirement for a Church is to have valid sacraments, I simply cannot agree that the beauty of the Church is unimportant.  After all, is not Beauty a transcendental, that is, ultimately a name of God?  Is not the beauty present in a place an explicit participation in the divine?  If this is so, then it is vital to bring beauty to whatever sphere we work in.

However, it has been the gradual trend of modernity to create a dichotomy between the beautiful and day-to-day life.  Take, for instance, the rise of the museum.  Clearly, our culture believes that it proves how much it does, in fact, value art by preserving it in a museum.  It shows how much value it places on these works by protecting them.  The primary manner in which we might gauge how art-conscious a city is would be to count how many museums it has and how many important works these museums contain.  What is clear, however, is that the arrival of the modern museum and corresponding "art appreciation" represents the distillation of artwork.  Where was the traditional residence of all the great works of art?  In homes, in churches and in public forums: in places of living, dwelling activity. 

What is a museum?  A museum is a holding zone, in which artworks are preserved, kept safe and isolated from the dangers of the living world.  We contain works in "regulated environments."  What are these artworks being protected from?  From unregulated environments, from life.  What sorts of places would these be?  The home, even a church or public form.  After all, life can be messy.  An artwork might be damaged.

But this relegates art to being only of historical importance, rather than of living importance.  All the while, the vibrant importance of visual beauty and the power it has to gravitate or render topography to a location is nullified.  "The image is a reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it.  The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing is richer, more profound, vital and storied than the thought.  People today are over-conceptualistic.  We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting and understanding symbols.  We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long." (Romano Guardini)

If Gaurdini is correct, then should we not attempt to bring the richness of the image into the domestic church?

Coming Soon:  Part II. The Problem with Ikea

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Traditional Slow Food: Chicken Broth

We've noticed one thing about traditional food: it requires planning and preparation. Unlike modern convenience food that can be whipped up in 20 minutes or less, traditional recipes requires diligent care and presence. However, that's not to say that they necessarily require an immense amount of involvement. Some of the best recipes we've discovered are those that need a long time to rise, soak, ferment or simmer...and not much else. One such recipe is chicken broth.

After evaluating grocery costs about a month ago, we realized that we were spending a ridiculous amount of money on broth. We eat a lot of soup in our family and generally you need some kind of base to make a flavorful product. Unfortunately, our soup habit (which we thought was quite economical) was racking up the tab. The obvious solution? Homemade broth, of course.

Like homemade bread, there's no turning back after homemade broth. Not only is it extremely economical, but it is absolutely delicious. It has amazing texture and flavor.  It is also immensely easy to make. We hope one day we can make it with chickens from our own yard, but until then we just use a regular old chicken from the grocery store. The recipe we use recommends using a whole chicken (if you live in Phoenix, you can find them at Pro's), but we haven't as of yet. When you're finished cooking the broth, you can of course keep the meat for other dishes throughout the week. And if you have babies at home, the cooked vegetables are ideal snacks for little ones. We also use it to cook rice, quinoa, and other grains, since it adds nutrients as well as flavor.


Chicken Broth Recipe from "Nourishing Traditions"

  • 1 whole free-range chicken or 2-3 pounds of bony chicken parts (necks, backs, breastbones, wings, or other chix scraps
  • gizzards from one chicken (optional)
  • feet from one chicken (optional)
  • 1 gallon cold filtered water
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 bunch parsley
If you are using the whole chicken, cut off the wings and remove the neck, fat glands and gizzards from the cavity. By all means, use the chicken feet if you can find them. They are full of gelatin. If you can find it, use a whole chicken, with the head intact. You can sometimes find these in Oriental markets, but make sure you look for farm-raised, free-range birds for the best nutrition.
Cut the chicken parts into pieces – if you’re using a whole chicken, cut off the wings and the neck and cut those down. Put the chicken and/or chicken pieces in a large stainless steel stock pot and cover with the water, vinegar and veggies (minus the parsley). Let the mixture stand for 30-60 minutes. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the top. Once you have that all skimmed, reduce the heat and cook (covered) for 6 hours to 24 hours. The longer the better – it will yield a much richer stock. About 10 minutes before the stock is done, add the parsley. The parsley is important because it adds mineral ions to the broth.
Let the broth cool slightly and then remove the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon or tongs. If you used a whole chicken, make sure you save the meat for casseroles or soup. The skin and small bones will be soft enough that you can feed them to your cat or dog without any harm. Strain the stock into another bowl and stick it in the fridge until the broth congeals and the fat rises to the top. Skim off the fat and reserve it for future projects.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Homage to the Capsicum

Unknown, "The Holy Family with Angels", c. 1425
 Catherine de Hueck Doherty concludes the second chapter of My Russian Yesterdays with this simple prayer to Our Lady:

"Mother of Christ,
Keeper of St. Joseph's house,
Heart of all hearths,
Patroness of all wives and mothers,
Give me the grace
To make a home
Wherever I am.

I was particularly struck by the last line of this prayer. As a wife and a mother, what does it mean to "make a home wherever I am?"

We've all heard the trite cliche age-old adage, "Home is where the heart is." Here's my concern about this line of thought: as a wife and mother called to "make a home wherever I am," I must take my heart with me. I cannot leave it behind in a previous place of security (perhaps my childhood home) while I move to another place that I merely occupy. When I accompany my husband into a different, perhaps foreign land, I must go with the intention of making this new place a home.

 This theme of relocation is one of the primary themes in O.E. Rolvaag's tragic novel, Giants in the Earth. In the book, which chronicles one immigrant family's attempt to make a home in young America, the wife of the main character is literally driven insane out of homesickness for her native land. Her initial despondency develops into a brooding sadness, which finally ends in full-blown despair and madness. (Yes, it sounds depressing, but it's an excellent book, I promise.) Although this is an extreme example of what can happen when a woman despairs of her new and perhaps unwanted arrangements, I think it speaks to something that women and men alike may experience when they move to a new place. Your heart doesn't always come with you right away. Sometimes you have to pull it along behind you until it finally catches up.

 We experienced this a bit when we moved from Belgium to Phoenix. And yet in moments of desolation and loneliness, it helped us to remember that this new place was (and is) utterly given. There is a mission for us here, a calling to make a home, for however long that may be. And the Good Lord has given us a great way to accomplish this: Food.

Delicious delights to make you feel truly at home! "Comfort food" in the truest sense! Yes, the Southwest has plenty of unique processed foods to offer, like cactus candy and those cool scorpion lollipops. We like to limit the sugar intake around here, however, so I was thinking more along these lines:

Until a few months ago, I didn't know the difference between a habanero and a jalapeno (weren't they the same thing??) Since then,  I've become a fervent admirer of the Capsicum family (or genus if you want to get technical) and its many varieties. There are 73 in this picture, I believe, and I've only used about six of them, but the experience has been a true culinary revolution. Try this recipe for "Gingerbread-Crusted Apple Tart" from the excellent book, Seasonal Southwest Cooking. It might look like your typical apple pie at first glance, but the addition of just one serrano pepper and a teaspoon of chile powder makes it truly distinctive...and perhaps the best apple pie we've ever tasted.


Gingerbread-Crusted Apple Tart
 From "Seasonal Southwest Cooking," by Barabara Pool Frenzl


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon molasses
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces and chilled
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water


4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon


1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup whole toasted almonds
1/3 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cut in 1 inch pieces and chilled

To Make the Crust:

The book recommends using a food processor, which is an excellent tool, but for pie crusts I personally prefer to do it by hand. Regardless of the method you choose,  simply mix the flour, sugar, salt, ginger, chile powder, and cinnamon together. Cut or process the butter and molasses into this mixture until you have coarse crumbs. Add just enough cold water to bind the ingredients without making the dough sticky. Transfer the dough onto a floured surface and knead it just until it comes together. Chill the dough for at least an hour, then roll it out into a 13-inch circle and transfer to a pie pan. The book recommends using an 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. I used a springform cheesecake pan and it worked just fine. Chill the crust while you make the filling and topping. You'll also want to preheat the oven at this point to 375 degrees.

To Make the Filling:

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.

To Make the Topping:

Process all the ingredients except the butter until the nuts are finely chopped. Or, if you don't have a food processor, you can do it caveman-style and place all the nuts in a plastic zipper baggie, then pound them with a heavy object. Add the butter and process or cut it into the mixture until you have pea-sized pieces.

Put the filling in the crust and spoon the topping on top of it. Bake about 45 minutes or until the crust and topping are brown and the apples are tender. Cool for 15 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and serve with whipped cream or ice cream (the book recommends cinnamom, which would be amazing, but we served it with vanilla and it was delicious). Makes about 12 servings.

This pie is delicious. I'm sure it would be amazing without the peppers, but if you want the real experience, DO NOT OMIT THE PEPPER OR THE CHILE POWDER. You will not be disappointed.

Now we use chiles in our menu most nights of the week and have enjoyed several recipes, like chicken mole as well as a delicious chili recipe made with beef round, tomatillos and roasted Anaheims and poblanos. A few nights ago I made a posole with chicken and tomatillos, which used another new ingredient for our family (hominy), as well as tomatillos and Cotija cheese. Oh, and canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce have become our new best friend. In short, the dear Capsicum family has proven to be a tried-and-true kitchen  companion out here in the Valley of the Sun. Perhaps pepper farming is in our future...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Film Review: "Babette's Feast", A Culinary Conversion

Film poses one of the most difficult series of questions for the Catholic family.  What is the role of the movie in the home?  Is there a place for film in the Catholic home at all?  If so, what sort of films?  How often? etc.  Certainly the greatest danger is that film does not pose a line of questions for us at all.  This, I fear, is commonly the case.  Film is such a common artistic medium that it seems fundamentally radical to a.) see it as problematic and to b.)  not indulge in it.  As with all modern technology, the greatest danger is that, as our lives become saturated with it, it remains unthought.

Why is film problematic?  Because it is immediately powerful.  It generates a field in which we find ourselves.  I think this is doubly the case for children.  Is it worth the risk, then?  For the right movie, I think so.

So what constitutes the "right movie"?  

I remember one family from my childhood parish who had a distinct approach to the whole issue: no one in the family would ever watch anything that they deemed was innapropriate for the youngest member of the family. This always struck me as absurd.  Simply because a movie is not appropriate for a two-year-old does not mean that it is objectively inappropriate.  Andrei Rublev, for example, rated as number one on the Vatican's list for religious films, is not appropriate for any two-year-olds or, for that matter, many adults.  

It is also quite clear that the movie rating system is absolutely unsatisfactory.  This rating method is, for one thing, rather reductionist:  a film's appropriateness is gauged entirely by the compartmentalized atoms of the work.  Is there a sex scene?  Is there foul language?  Is there violence?  What degree of violence?  Does someone smoke a cigarette?  Naturally, these aspects are not inessential to the movie as an entire work, but that is precisely what should be considered: the movie as a single whole.  There are many movies that do not have any sex, foul language, violence or cigarretes that are not appropriate for any viewer.  Some of the best films contain several of these aspects.  Movies speak.  What are they saying?

Babette's Feast is, we would argue, one of the greatest films ever made.  Set in a 19th Century village in Jutland and populated by a strict Protestant sect, the bleak backdrop cannot withstand the evident presence of grace.  The presence of grace is not confined to the interior substance of the film: the director was certainly not a Catholic (he was one of primary advocates of the legalization of pornography in Denmark), and the author of the original book was an agnostic (more about that here).  As such, the film is a near perfect case of art transcending the artist.  Babette's Feast ranked high on the Vatican's list of 45 best films, under the category "Religion."

Perhaps one of the most singular strengths of this movie is that it realizes the true role of the artist: to express beauty in the form of a providential gift. As noted by Blessed John Paul II in his 1999 "Letter to Artists," "Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!'"

Still, it is the careful study of humanity that makes Babette's Feast a masterpiece. As the narrator says, "Babette’s presence in the house of the two sisters can only be explained through the hidden regions of the heart." The characters in the film illustrate the tragic flaws, the laughable habits and the deepest capacity of the human person. On the one hand, one cannot avoid smiling a bit at the expense of the villagers from the film.  Their world appears to be a very alien one: it is cold, drab, flavorless, distant from God (despite the fact that he is referenced frequently).  Yet perhaps, even as we begin to characterize this setting, these characters, we come to realize how similar we are, how parallel our posture is to these caricatures.

We too (in a way that is doubtlessly more significant than we may be prepared to acknowledge) have forgotten how to feast.  Simultaneously, though never separately, we are rarely engaged in a sacramental world.  We live in a context that has relinquished its daily sacramental character.

There is, perhaps, one important distinction between ourselves and these villagers however.  The villagers, as small as their world may be, accept the stranger, Babette, into their homes.  This moment of openness is responded to by a gift, a feast so transcendent that the villagers cannot possibly have the palate to appreciate it.  However, the gift is not wasted upon them.  The villagers are given an authentically spiritual experience (now sacramental) that forges them as a community and draws them closer to the divine.  If we could but allow the stranger that is our own humanity to our table, what feast might grace prepare for us?

Ultimately, Babette's Feast is a film about gift in the service of beauty. In a moment of crisis, albeit a humble one,  it is Babette's total gift that provides a shift, a turning in the hearts of the villagers. Interestingly, it is the gift of the artist that allows them to see what has always been the case. After the dinner, Phillipa observes that "The stars have moved closer," to which Martina replies, "Perhaps they move closer every night." The gift of the artist allows us to see what permeates the everyday but is nevertheless often forgotten. It is the ability to make visible (or palateable) the invisible, the intangible. In this sense, the artistic gift is an image of the mystery of the Incarnation.

As a wife and mother, this film bade me ask the question: Could not the home itself be the palette? We  are told that the chef of the Cafe Anglais had the ability to "transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite." Like the dinner table, the home is the place where the two collide, where the physical and spiritual emerge not as dualistic enemies but intimate allies. And yet this gift can only emerge through a sincere gift of self. For after all, as the general says in his final toast: 

"And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."

Thursday, February 2, 2012


"..According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation."

                     ~T.S. Eliot, "A Song for Simeon"

The Feast of Candlemas: A feast that speaks of light and dark, hope and heartbreak, "maternal sorrow" and "ultimate vision". A strange day on which the coming of Christ, the heritage of the Jews, and the foreign pagan sacrifices all somehow have a place.

And yet through all these varied contexts runs a common thread of beginning. In pre-Christian cultures, this day marked the beginning of the harvest. The ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Imbolg to mark the lactation of ewes, with cheese and milk as the celebratory fare. Imbolg also celebrated the coming of light out of the dark winter months.

It was on this day that the Blessed Virgin Mary entered into the Temple for the rite of purification, marking a new beginning in her sacred role as Mother of the Savior. As noted by Father Hugh Thwaites, S.J., "A first born son had to be offered to God and then ransomed back. So Our Blessed Lady would have offered her Son to the Father, and then St Joseph would have paid the priest five shekels. Then she would have received Him back in her arms and they would have been free to go home."

On a grander scale, the Feast of the Presentation marks a new beginning for humanity. In the Eastern churches, this feast is called "The Meeting of Our Lord," which refers to the long-awaited meeting of Simeon and the Christ child. What a beautiful image of our own position: awaiting the light in the darkness, the Second Coming of Christ the King. As noted in an article by an Orthodox archbishop,  "When the righteous Simeon took the child into His arms and declared that this indeed was Salvation Incarnate, the 'Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,' a new era began; the era of God’s presence among His children."

This feast once marked the beginning of a new liturgical season---and the official end of the Christmas season. Recently several people (non-Catholics and Catholics alike) have embarrassingly mentioned to me that they've only taken down their Christmas decorations in the last week, so I reassured them that they are in fact traditionalists at heart. As noted in a 17th century poem about Candlemas by Robert Herrick: 

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Of course, there are also several more secular "superstitions" associated with this day, which is often another mark of a great Catholic feast. Phil the groundhog sighted his shadow today, predicting six more weeks of winter. Here in Phoenix, we accept that prediction with open arms (it's in the upper 60s today and that's as cold as it's been this week). And like any great feast, there are numerous traditional recipes to make for Candlemas. We enjoyed some hot tamales tonight, which is a traditional Mexican food choice. In France and other European countries, today is the day to make crepes, which symbolize renewal and hope. 

To conclude, here's a description of a celebration of Candlemas that dates from about 800 A.D. (Read more at New Liturgical Movement):

"Then the clergy and the various scholae of cantors were admitted into the presence of the Pontiff that they might each receive a candle from his hands. This distribution being ended, the cantors intoned the antiphon of the Introit: Exsurge, Domine, which is still preserved in our present Missal, and the Pope made his solemn entrance into the church of St Adrian. After the Introit followed the Kyrie eleison, as in all Masses. Next came the Collect -- now preserved only in the Gregorian Sacramentary -- after which the procession commenced.

... even in the ninth century the people divided themselves into seven companies, each one of which was preceded by its own cross... 

The Pope walked barefoot and was preceded by two acolytes with lighted candles in their hands. These walked on each side of the subdeacon who swung a thurible from which arose clouds of incense. Two staurophori, each bearing a cross, walked before the Pope, who was followed by the scholae of cantors in ordered ranks, chanting psalms."

"Therefore, that we too, standing in the temple and holding and embracing the Son of God, might be worthy of forgiveness and progressing to better things, for this let us pray to Almighty God; let us also pray to the Infant Jesus Himself whom we long to hold in our arms and talk to."
-Hans Urs von Balthasar