Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Importance of Image in the Domestic Church

This is the second part of a series that considers what is at stake in the manner in which we decorate our homes.  You can see Part I here: A Modern Dichotomy: Separating Beauty from Life

Part II. The Problem with Ikea

Clearly people do care about the aesthetics of their homes.  They consider feng shui, interior decorating magazines etc.  For this reason it would seem that my claim in Part I that people consider the "visual" to be superficial and unimportant, or that beauty is often kept out of the home, is overstated or simply inaccurate.  

Black Square, Malevich, 1915
However, it is characteristic for modernity to have a reductionistic approach to the visual.  Although much of contemporary architecture and decoration is visually stimulating, it always lacks at least one element that has always been featured in Western Art: the icon.  This is because Modernity is fundamentally iconoclastic.  The focus of architecture and interior design has been to generate specific types of space, never to meditate on content: the modern room is content-free. This is not an accidental phenomenon.  

Take for instance the art of the famous Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, most famously, his "Black Square" of 1915.  In the exhibit that featured this painting, Malevich placed it in the corner of the room, the traditional location of the familial icon.  The importance of this location was certainly recognized by Malevich.  He said, "The image is the final path, the image is something that bares the exit, by means of the image the further path is interrupted, everything which has paths converges toward the image, all paths lead to the image particularly if it is holy, hence I see the justification and true significance of the Orthodox corner in which the image stands, the holy image as opposed to all other images and representations of sinners... The corner symbolizes that there is no other path to perfection except for the path into the corner."  Yet what image replaced the Theotokos?  A painting that was intentionally and absolutely revolutionary.  Malevich expresses the meaning behind this new anti-icon: "The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes, step by step, until the world 'everything we loved and by which we have lived' becomes lost to sight.  But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything.  But a blissful sense of liberating nonobjectivity drew me forth into the desert where nothing is real except feeling...and so feeling became the substance of my life."  So then, what is left?  The void is present, must be present for the new god, that is ourselves and our own subjectivity, within which there is no room for content.  "I search for God, I search within myself for myself. God is all-seeing, all-knowing, all powerful a future perfection of intuition as the oeumenical world of supra-reason. I search for God, I search for my face, I have already drawn its outline and I strive to incarnate myself," says Malevich.

Hm, thats funny...a Malevich influence?
So who cares what some crazy Russian painted or thought about in the early part of the Twentieth Century?  The problem is that we live in a world which has been constructed just like the Black Square:  we generate space, spaces where our subjectivity reigns as god.  Think of the architecture and interior design which is most cutting edge.  It is not simply a new idea, or a neat look.  It is saturated with revolution, revolution against the incarnational aspect of the authentic image.  It is designed to allow us to incarnate ourselves in any form we wish.  The void has itself become an idol, as it promises to be the grounds of possibility for our own deification.  

The true black square was the TV screen all along!
Once again, perhaps this does not seem to speak to you or me.  After all, we are hardly avant-garde.  Yet so many nice, young, perfectly Catholic folks are certainly attracted to these trends.  This is not to say that Catholicism should be backward.  It can converse with modern impulses.  And luckily we have a wonderful corporation, Ikea, which mass produces this image, in a conveniently less pretentious appearance to our prudish sensibilities.  But I wonder if what is going on is not just as radical as Malevich (albeit in a more palatably bourgeois strain)?

We spend so much time worrying  about grand-scale social and political issues as Catholics.    But is it possible that we are blind to something that is to the peripheral, that is less evident than any of these issues?  Maybe it is peripheral because it is unimportant, but perhaps we should consider the possibility that it is not a thematic object of our concern because it acts as the unspoken substructure of the world in which we live.  What if the truth was that, after a long day of working in the world, fighting the good fight, reciting apologetics around the water dispenser, we were coming home to a space with an underlying structure that belonged to the enemy?

Wait!  That looks like my living room!

Or maybe it is just decoration, and who cares?  After all, it doesn't really matter, it's just a matter of taste.  If you think it looks good, who am I to say it is dangerous?  I must be some kind of radical to think that any of this actually matters.

If this is your attitude, then I suppose I would refer you to Part 1.  To my mind, this way of thinking is nearly identical to the belief that it does not matter whether or not we have beautiful churches.  We must be more attentive to the domestic church. It too is a house of God.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Guardian of the Mystery of God"

"Wedding of Mary and Joseph" 17th century American painting

"I took for my advocate and lord the glorious Saint Joseph and commended myself earnestly to him; and I found that this my father and lord delivered me both from this trouble and also from other and greater troubles concerning my honor and the loss of my soul, and that he gave me greater blessings than I could ask of him. I do not remember even now that I have ever asked anything of him which he has failed to grant. I am astonished at the great favors which God has bestowed on me through this blessed saint, and at the perils from which He has freed me, both in body and in soul. To other saints the Lord seems to have given grace to succor us in some of our necessities but of this glorious saint my experience is that he succors us in them all and that the Lord wishes to teach us that as He was Himself subject to him on earth (for, being His guardian and being called His father, he could command Him) just so in Heaven He still does all that he asks. This has also been the experience of other persons whom I have advised to commend themselves to him; and even to-day there are many who have great devotion to him through having newly experienced this truth."

-From the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila

St. Joseph is known for his ability to grant favors, be they related to food or real estate.  The Sicilians have a special devotion to St. Joseph, who interceded on their behalf to stop a devastating famine. Since this miracle, it has become an Italian tradition to build an altar to St. Joseph on this day. The altar has three levels, one for each person of the Trinity, with a statue of St. Joseph at the top, and is decked with decorations as well as symbolic foods, such as fava beans, artichokes and baked goods.

There are actually two feasts that commemorate Saint Joseph. March 19th is the Feast of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and May 1st is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Today we commemorate the striking fact that God Himself was obedient to an earthly father. In a way this day is also a feast of the Holy Family, insofar as it celebrates the event of God Himself entering into a true human family. Saint Joseph was not simply an accessory to this family. God and his angels worked very hard, as we hear in Scripture, to ensure that the Christ Child would be given into the arms of not only his Blessed Mother, but also her spouse and a "righteous man." As Pope John Paul II wrote in "Redemptoris Custos":

Raphael, "The Holy Family With a Palm Tree"
"One can say that what Joseph did united him in an altogether special way to the faith of Mary. He accepted as truth coming from God the very thing that she had already accepted at the Annunciation. The Council teaches: "'The obedience of faith' must be given to God as he reveals himself. By this obedience of faith man freely commits himself entirely to God, making 'the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals,' and willingly assenting to the revelation given by him."(7) This statement, which touches the very essence of faith, is perfectly applicable to Joseph of Nazareth.
Therefore he became a unique guardian of the mystery "hidden for ages in God" (Eph 3:9), as did Mary, in that decisive moment which St. Paul calls "the fullness of time," when 'God sent forth his Son, born of redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.'"

 We recently learned that there is a beautiful chaplet devoted to Saint Joseph, which meditates on the seven sorrows and seven joys he experienced before and during the life of Christ. It is a beautiful prayer that is perfect for this feast. You can find it here in its entirety. We highly recommend it for anyone. After all, Saint Joseph has so many patronages---he is the patron saint of at least ten countries, a good handful of U.S. states and dioceses, house hunters, a happy death, a holy death, expectant mothers, immigrants, laborers, engineers, families, fathers....and the list goes on. 

St. Joseph, Guardian of the Mystery of God, pray for us!

El Greco, "St. Joseph and the Christ Child"

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Padraig

Firstly, let us just point out that Saint Patrick originally came from Scotland. Yes, the patron saint of Ireland was born in 385 A.D. on the banks of the River Clyde. Like so many saints who have been popularized, St. Patrick is much more of an interesting and colorful character than shamrocks and "the wearing of the green" can encapsulate. Although he may be one of the most popular Catholic saints, the real Saint Patrick remains hidden beneath the corned beef and cabbage.

Of course, that's not to say that these customs are superfluous and detached from the man himself. But perhaps it might enrich the feast to hear the Saint himself speak while we celebrate. Reading his own autobiography, The Confession (or The Declaration) is one way to do so. John Skinner did a nice translation of The Confession as well as the Letter to Coroticus, which some scholars think was one of the causes of Patrick's imprisonment. Actually, he's a bit hostile to the Scots in this document, calling them "bloody men who have steeped themselves in the blood of innocent Christians." However, with the exception of this unfriendly line (although it was probably accurate at the time), Patrick reveals himself as a man of extraordinary humility and fervor. Here's a brief snippet of St. Patrick's Confession that we feel illustrates his fervor for Christ and love for the Irish people:

"Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.

And if at any time I managed anything of good for the sake of my God whom I love, I beg of him that he grant it to me to shed my blood for his name with proselytes and captives, even should I be left unburied, or even were my wretched body to be torn limb from limb by dogs or savage beasts, or were it to be devoured by the birds of the air, I think, most surely, were this to have happened to me, I had saved both my soul and my body. For beyond any doubt on that day we shall rise again in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ, made in his image; for we shall reign through him and for him and in him.

For the sun we see rises each day for us at His command, but it will never reign, neither will its splendour last, but all who worship it will come wretchedly to punishment. We, on the other hand, shall not die, who believe in and worship the true sun, Christ, who will never die, no more shall he die who has done Christ’s will, but will abide for ever just as Christ abides for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time and now and for ever and ever. Amen."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Easter Preparations Part I: Limoncello

Sorrento, earliest homes of limoncello
Lemons are plentiful in the Valley right now.  No doubt lemons are a common sight for most of us, who are accustomed to seeing them piled up in grocery stores all year round.  However, if you are fortunate enough to live in a location where they grow, lemons take on a new meaning.  The bright yellow orbs freckle the dark green foliage with light and warmth.  If you pick the lemons from the tree, their odor is full bodied and rich.  We are also all familiar with the juice of a lemon.  However, the skin of the lemon should never be taken for grated.  It is filled with the most delicious oils that can be squeezed on to the rim of glasses, lending a light perfume to a drink of water, lemonade or a cocktail.

Clearly the uses for lemons are many.  However, in preparation for Easter we were excited at the prospect of making Limoncello.  This delicious liqueur, used as a digestive in Southern Italy following lunch or supper, seems to us to fit the Easter season perfectly. 

Many recipes take the better part of 3 months to prepare, but, with the Easter season soon upon us, we drew inspiration from a trusted resource, Luscious Liqueurs by the indubitable A.J. Rathbun (author of the cocktail bible Good Spirits) which we have faith will yield a fine product.  For Day 1 you will need 14 lemons (hopefully freshly picked) and 4 cups of high grain alcohol (Everclear recommended).  If Everclear is not legal where you live (please move to a more Catholic state) you can substitute high alcohol vodka.  The difference will be notable.  Firstly, vodka does have its own characteristic flavor and most vodkas are 80 proof, unlike Everclear which is 190 proof. 

Your first (and by far most time consuming) task is to isolate the lemon peel from both the fruit and the any white pith.  Removal of the pith is important as it will make the finished product immensely bitter, detracting from the spirit of the limoncello.  There are two ways to go about this job: 1.)  use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin.  This is what most recipes online suggest.  2.)  what we did, which was to peel the lemons and then remove the pith with a knife.  I believe this second method was faster and perhaps superior.

As you remove the pith, be conscious of the tremendous oils that are stored up in the lemon's skin.  These oils will be the foundation of flavor of the limoncello. 

After you have isolated all of the skin minus the pith you will place it in a glass container with a tight fitting lid.  We used two quart sized mason jars.  Add the four cups of Everclear and then place in a dark cool location for two weeks. You can make lemonade with the leftovers.

After this 2 week period you will add 3 cups of simple syrup,which is actually immensely easy to make.  Simply (very simply) combine 2.5 cups of water and 3 cups of sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat, and stir at a low boil for 5 minutes.  Let this concoction completely cool in the pan, then add it to the limoncello or store as needed.  Simple syrup may be stored in the fridge for up to 1 month.

After adding the simple syrup, reseal and let the limoncello sit for 2 more weeks.

At the end of 2 weeks, strain the liqueur through a double layer of cheesecloth into a final container.  Limoncello is normally kept in the freezer. 

Perhaps next year we shall endeavor to attempt some of the more complex recipes out there.  One of our goals as a family is to really develop a comprehensive calendar that tells us which items need to be prepared at what times so that they will be ready in time for their designated feast.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

It Will All Come Around in the End

My three year on-and-off relationship with knitting needles is riddled with incomplete projects and an overall lack of commitment. Don't get me wrong: I love to knit. Knitting is a great way to relieve stress and there really is nothing like the feeling you get when you complete a project and are just so proud of it. Unfortunately, I have limited experience with that euphoric feeling, since I rarely complete the projects I begin. The reasons for this are many, from irreparable mistakes to pure frustration to babies who seem to ambush me as soon as I pick up my needles and yarn.

But I'm glad to say that I really think that trend is over, thanks to an amazing discovery that I should have made much sooner. I received Elizabeth Zimmerman's "Knitting Workshop" for Christmas over two years ago from my husband's wonderful parents. (Any of you who have already read my post about spinning here, will notice a recurring theme. This is a predictable pattern in my life, but fortunately it always has a nice outcome.) I set out immediately to watch the DVD in its entirety and follow Zimmerman's advice word for word. Although that is certainly a noble task, it didn't work for me. I couldn't figure out how to knit in the continental style and was very discouraged. I also didn't have real wool, which Zimmerman praises highly (and for good reason of course). But these were just the superficial reasons. The real reason is quite simple: I was scared of circular needles.

For those who are not familiar with circular needles, they are pretty much two mini knitting needles  connected by a thin cord. Here is a picture:
The Horror!
They look pretty scary, eh? I certainly thought so. For two years, my Elizabeth Zimmerman book and DVD remained virtually untouched, except for leafing through the book occasionally and sighing in defeat. All that changed last month, when I had a lovely discussion with a friend here in Phoenix about all things knitting and spinning. I had already been feeling a strong desire to start a new knitting project with my newly-spun wool, and our talk made me miss knitting even more than I had before. She is also an Elizabeth Zimmerman fan and reassured me that circular knitting was not as daunting as I thought. I came home with a new sense of purpose, and picked up a pair of circular needles at the store the next day.

And so began my new obsession. My first attempt at Zimmerman's beginner project on circular needles, which is a simple hat with color work, was a failure. I made the fatal mistake of twisting my yarn on the circular needle.  I wasn't too upset about it, since I realized that I didn't have enough of my handspun blue yarn to make the whole hat anyways! I also decided that, for my second attempt, rather than begin my new endeavor with my first ever skein of handspun yarn (which is a bit uneven as I tried to show in the pictures), I would delay being a wool purist and use one of the dozen skeins of regular old acrylic yarn lying around our apartment, with many apologies to the late Mrs. Zimmerman. Reading this quote in her obituary in the 1999 New York Times reassured me that she wouldn't mind, or at least won't criticize me if we ever meet in the afterlife:

"She was a woman who held to strong principles about her work, like never using any thread but wool. But she never criticized another knitter's use of other materials, including the dreaded polyester."

So I began my new project last Wednesday evening, and a week later (or about 3 hours of knitting) here's what I have:

I post these pictures not to brag, since this is a beginner project after all and is only partially complete. I just thought that if there are any hesitant knitters out there, like I was as of last week, it might provide a testimony of sorts to the wonders of circular needles. They are amazing. Somehow I'm able to knit at twice the speed that I do on traditional needles, and perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is that I'm not dreading the horrible prospect of sewing up seams when this is all said and done, which I admit I thoroughly despise.

And beyond these practical benefits, there's something about knitting in general (and most handicrafts) that is so true to life. As Zimmerman says in her book, Knitter's Almanac: ''The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep.'' And even for those of us who do not have the luxury of knitting with real wool (yet), knitting is just one more opportunity to practice "casting" aside your  worries, speculations and over-analysis, only to find that it all comes around in the end (please excuse the be honest, they were intended but perhaps not very good).

I would love to hear about any other knitting adventures, whether on circular needles or otherwise. And for all the knitters out there, who like me, must often learn the hard way, don't lose hope! Instead, as Zimmerman advises:

 "Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises."

Good Knitting!

Elizabeth Zimmerman, center, knitting on circular needles.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The World Needs More Fairy Tales

“If any strain of my ‘broken music’ make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.”

I was struck by a thought last night while reading to my daughter: people no longer write fairy tales.

Sure, we have ‘renditions’ of fairy tales: the Disney renditions, the beautifully illustrated (or, as is sometimes the case, hideously distasteful) childrens’ books that recount the fairy tales of past ages…but who writes their own fairy tales these days?

If we are missing some obvious contemporary writer of childrens’ fairy tales (J.K. Rowling doesn't count), please inform us. But as it is, it doesn’t seem like the fairy tale is a popular genre these days. Certainly not as popular as the pseudo-vampire genre.

This is a tragic event for humanity. The world needs more fairy tales. I have only recently discovered the tales of George MacDonald,  who was one of the primary inspirations of Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton. He was also Scottish and had an excellent beard, which are both endearing qualities in our opinion. In his astounding essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” MacDonald summarizes the true nature of the fairy tale:

“The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is---not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any respect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding---the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.”

That's not to say that the fairy tale is arbitrary and without relation to law, to truth; according to MacDonald, the fairy tale "...cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight." There is something spontaneous and vibrant at work in the fairy tale, beyond the arbitrary whim of fancy.  But what allows for the meaning of the story to unfold is its relation to truth. The fairy tale world is not simply one of lawless imagination, but is rather “the product of live Law,” based in a truth which, as discovered by the author himself, "came from thoughts beyond his own."

Fortunately, a good fairy tale is also timeless. My daughter and I have been reading The Princess and the Goblin every night since Christmas and are almost finished. The book is tremendous and has produced many a flashing and dim eye in daughter and mother, respectively. We recommend it to any readers who, like us, lament the loss of the fairy tale. Thank goodness there is a sequel!