Friday, December 28, 2007

Still embarassing me after all these years :)

My wonderful father drove me to Costco this evening to pick up my car and its four shiny new tires. He was in a hurry. Unfortunately when we entered the tire center there was no one there. I was getting settled in to wait, when suddenly Dad burst into song:

"A car! A car! We're here to get a car, we need a car!"

Imagine it sung in a fine tenor voice with operatic flair. It worked. The Costco guy showed up before Dad was half done, and he continued to serenade us as I sheepishly told the guy the make and model.

This reminds me of a time we four kids were children and Dad was taking the family to In-N-Out. We pulled up to the drive-through microphone and the guy asked, "May I help you?" And Dad, God bless him, chose to sing our order. "We would like six double-doubles, please grill the onions, no tomatoes..." he boomed out, while we kids ducked down and tried not to be seen. When Dad finished singing there was a pregnant pause. Then the In-N-Out employee gamely sang back to us! "Okay, so that's six double-doubles..." he began and went on from there. I give the man much credit for answering his crazy customer in kind. :)

Dad has a fine voice. It used to be a regular Sunday routine that whoever was in the church pew ahead of us would turn around and say, "You should join the choir!" When he retired he finally bowed to the pressure and joined.

Thanks, Retractiones!

Irenaeus is an awesome guy. :) He linked to my blog and suddenly there's traffic!

Yet another thing that makes sense now that I'm Catholic

In college I sang in Women's Glee Club, and we did a very old Christmas song called "Wolcum Yole" (which roughly means "Welcome, Christmas season!"). Two of the lines went, "Wolcom be ye, Stevene and Jon / Wolcom Innocentes every one." I figured the lyricist was just throwing in names there, filling up the song with more lines. Why Stephen and John? Why not? As for "Innocentes," I imagined that referred to all good Christian folk.

Well, NOW I get it. Someone just posted those lyrics on Fr. Z's comboxes and it jolted my memory, but this time I had a Catholic understanding to apply to it. Christmas is on the 25th, and then the feast of St. Stephen on the 26th, and St. John the Evangelist on the 27th, and the Holy Innocents (who are the children of Bethlehem two years old and under that Herod had killed in an attempt to kill Jesus) have their feast on the 28th! Thomas a Becket comes on the 29th and before you know it it's the new year, and all that and more is in the song:
Wolcum, Wolcum, Wolcum be thou hevenè king,
Wolcum Yole! Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum, Innocentes every one,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum, seintes lefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!
Candelmesse, Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcum, Wolcum, Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum alle and make good cheer,
Wolcum alle another yere, another yere, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas as a new Catholic, part two

In Exmas and Crissmas Lewis writes the following: "And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast."

I never quite knew what he meant by that. I assumed it must be the custom in Anglican churches in England for the people to have refreshments after Christmas morning services, and Lewis' "Herodotus" was mistaking that for something sacred.

Then I read the essay for the first time as a Catholic and thought Ohhhhhhh! Duh!

That tells you how much the Eucharist had faded in importance in my Protestant denomination, even though we had Communion once a month, more often than some churches. And yet it's the one thing Jesus commanded us to do to worship Him. He didn't say, "Hear sermons and sing songs and go to Sunday school in remembrance of me," thought obviously all those things are good. It was "This is my body.... Do this in remembrance of me." The first Christians "devoted themselves to... the breaking of bread", and Paul writes very sternly about doing it properly (lest we be "guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord"), and Jesus has a long discourse about it in John 6 which even if you insist on interpreting symbolically should still make you figure the symbol is pretty darn important: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you". And in the earliest post-Bible description of a Christian worship service, St. Justin Martyr's account from about AD 150, you find that the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist every time they met, and believed that it became the Body and Blood of Christ through the prayer of the priest, just as Catholics believe today. Helps to explain why I've heard of several Protestant ministers who decided to go back to the purity of the early church's worship and ended up concluding, after some study, that that meant having the Eucharist every Sunday. But then, those ministers eventually followed through to the logical conclusion and became Catholic (giving up their livelihoods to do so).

Okay... I didn't quite mean to write an apologetics post here. My point was to make fun of myself for thinking that Lewis' "sacred feast" was coffee and donuts. :)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I would just like to report...

...that yes, I did wear a mantilla to Christ Mass. :)

Monopoly

is associated in my mind with Christmas, since it's often what we four siblings and sometimes our parents play together once the presents are opened.

We have got to stop letting anyone get the green monopoly. Whoever gets it is almost bound to win the game. They're more than $1000 in rent once you've got some houses up, and people land on one of the three almost every time around the board! Not that I'm bitter or anything.

In conclusion: "Tennessee, Tennessee! With three houses, five-fifty!"

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas as a new Catholic

"Happy 1st Christmas as a Catholic!" wrote one of my friends on a Christmas card she gave to me. I appreciated that because it is a bit different now.

The Congregational churches I used to attend had the usual four weeks of Advent. Each Sunday we'd light a candle of the Advent wreath-- three candles were purple and one was pink; I never knew why. We'd sing the glorious Christmas carols all month and have a beautiful candlelight service of carols late on Christmas Eve. That service was the epitome of the celebration of Christmas for me. I would throw my heart into the songs and usually ended up crying at some point. It was the best way I knew to worship God for giving us his Son. Who could ever thank Him enough? We'd all sing Silent Night with a sweet descant, and file outside with our lighted candles to sing O Holy Night in the stillness and cold, and then quietly go home to bed. Then came the big day which was all about family and presents, and then, too abruptly, it was all over but the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

But last year in Advent season I was in RCIA and had started going to Catholic churches instead. I was very surprised and not a little disappointed to hear no Christmas carols at Mass. "Just because they were mostly written by Protestants..." I thought. But then, after Christmas, boom-- carols galore! For Catholics, Advent is supposed to be a somewhat penitential time of preparation, and it's after December 25 that you get the whole Christmas season of celebration, lasting till around January 13. I loved it. It felt like we'd let the outside world's craziness blow by, and then we had our own quiet, profound observance of the season afterwards. (Same thing with Lent followed by Easter-- the Church has a longer time to prepare beforehand and a longer time to celebrate afterwards.) Purple, the color of penance, is the color of the vestments in Catholic churches during Advent. But on the third Sunday of Advent priests can wear pink-- excuse me, rose-- for Gaudete Sunday. That finally explained the candles of the Advent wreath. And Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a custom dating at least to the A.D. 600s, which may explain the late-night services I was used to (though really, since the Gospels seem to indicate that Jesus was born at night, it's clearly fitting to have a service then.)

The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary are centered around Christmas; now that I've learned the Rosary I've found it wonderful to pray them in December. What a good way to get my mind refocused on what's important about the season.

Another good way to do that has been the Liturgy of the Hours, which the priests of St. Peter Chanel pray every morning in church. It's been so moving to read the long extracts of Isaiah, full of longing and joyful anticipation of the coming Messiah. And then the second reading is usually a fascinating meditation on the Incarnation from one of the early Church Fathers.

I used to long for this kind of thing without really knowing what I was longing for. I just had a vague desire for more liturgical formality, and I wanted to improve on my pathetic lack of knowledge about the early Christians. I've gotten both as a side benefit of conversion.

I love the Christmas carols as much as ever, but now I have an even better way to worship God at Christmas: to receive Holy Communion at Mass:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas announcement from our church bulletin

"Please don't feed the priests. We cannot eat all the food that is sometimes given to us, nor do we have space to store it. Thank you all for your wonderful support."

To which our pastor added this after Mass one day: "Please don't give us any food. The skinny priests won't eat it and the fat priests will just get fatter!"

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Counter-programming at Christmas

This is a note from the bulletin of my church, St. Peter Chanel in Hawaiian Gardens, for the first Sunday of Advent (December 2 this year). It's almost unbelievably counter-cultural. Just try to make this fit in with all the "Buy buy buy! Eat eat eat! Party party party!" messages you get from advertising during the month of December:
Advent

Advent begins today. Good to keep in mind that the Advent Season is not the Christmas Season. Advent is the time to spiritually prepare ourselves for Christmas by spending more time in prayer, practicing greater self-denial, and being more self-giving. It is hoped that everyone will take advantage of this penitential season to make a good confession and so better prepare himself to celebrate Christmas with a pure heart. The more efforts we make to prepare ourselves spiritually, the more we will be able to participate in the true joy of Christmas.

Some suggestions regarding prayer: come to Mass daily if at all possible, pray the Rosary daily, set up an advent wreath at home and pray around it as a family, read the infancy narratives from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke as a family.

Some suggestions regarding self-denial: give up sweets, don't watch television or movies for entertainment, give up video games or music, do a little fasting, limit your spending on gifts.

Some suggestions regarding self-giving: give to the poor program, visit or write someone who is lonely, assist with the preparation of the food and gifts for the needy, children can do extra chores around the house.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Guess who met through a singles ad?

This is old news, but I just came across it again and couldn't resist posting it. :)
London, Sep 11, 2006 / 12:00 am (CNA).- Pope Benedict XVI and his
brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, 82, were surprised to learn this week
that their parents, Joseph and Maria, met through a singles ad their
father had placed in local Catholic weekly, Liebfraubote.

The disclosure came at the outset of the Pope's return to his native
Bavaria, where he intends to visit his parents' grave and the village
of Marktl am Inn, where he was born, reported the London Times.

The July 1920 ad was found in the Bavarian state archives by a
researcher for the tabloid Bild. According to the report, the ad read:
"Middle-ranking civil servant, single, Catholic, 43, immaculate past,
from the country, is looking for a good Catholic, pure girl who can
cook well, tackle all household chores, with a talent for sewing and
homemaking with a view to marriage as soon as possible. Fortune
desirable but not a precondition."

Maria Peintner, 36, an illegitimate baker's daughter and a trained
cook, replied. She did not have a fortune, but they married four
months later.

The Pope said he remembers his father as "strict but fair" and his
mother as warm and open-hearted," reported the Times.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Binge drinking behind sexual health 'epidemic'

Via Fr. Dwight Longenecker's blog comes a sad story: Binge drinking behind sexual health 'epidemic' . It seems that a lot of woman in Britain are getting very drunk, resulting in STDs and unintended pregnancies.

That's hardly news, but what strikes me most in the article is the complete absence of any suggestion that these promiscuous binge-drinkers are human beings, with a certain inherent dignity, who have the ability to learn to control themselves. Instead they're looked upon as out-of-control animals and the government is urged to keep them corralled:

"The researchers said the Government must tackle the issue of cheap alcohol and called for condoms to be provided for free in pubs, clubs and taxis.... The authors argue that, as the UK moves inevitably towards a 24 hour drinking culture, it is vital that the infrastructure needed to keep these drinkers safe keeps pace and is adequately funded."

So "these drinkers" aren't even expected to provide themselves with prophylactics. The government should surround them with condoms! Did you forget to pick up your free samples at the club? Ask your taxi driver! A complete, adequately-funded infrastructure awaits to support you as you seek to fulfill your every urge! It's downright unreasonable to expect anyone to develop self-control!

Trying to shield people from the consequences of their own bad actions may seem compassionate, but it leads to their further moral degradation. I think the real crisis here is spiritual, and the researchers' suggested solutions would only make that crisis worse.

(If I had tags for my posts, this one would go under "Rachel solves the world's problems." ;)

Monday, December 17, 2007

C.S. Lewis quotes

Which I post because I find them to be very, very true. You're just lucky I'm only doing four. :)
"We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."
"No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good."
"Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them - never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"
"This year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A quote from Philip Pullman

The author of The Golden Compass was asked this question: "Figures from the religious right, particularly the authors of the Left Behind series, are out campaigning against your film. What’s your reaction to that?"

He replied:
"I’m not concerned with shutting anybody up, stopping anybody from reading any books, even the Left Behind ones. I don’t believe in doing that, because I’m a democrat. People who want to tell other people not to read such a book or see such a film are dictators. There is no place for dictators in the world I want."

A quote from the dictionary:


dictator
(dĭk'tā'tər, dĭk-tā'-)
n.

    1. An absolute ruler.
    2. A tyrant; a despot.
  1. An ancient Roman magistrate appointed temporarily to deal with an immediate crisis or emergency.
  2. One who dictates: These initials are those of the dictator of the letter.

And finally, a quote from Inigo Montoya:

"You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Roe v. Wade quiz

Today's the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who, in addition to being “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas”, is patroness of the unborn. And that's my excuse for bragging that I scored 100% on this Roe v. Wade quiz.

My church is always packed at 5 AM every December 12 for the first Mass of the day, followed by the traditional mañanitas to La Virgen de Guadalupe. Don't be ridiculous; of course I have not personally verified that fact. I was there for the 8 AM Mass and that was plenty early enough. :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Convert faux pas, part 2

So there I was, at St. Peter Chanel on a crowded Sunday morning this past January, three months away from being received into the Church. At communion time I sat down to let the Catholics squeeze by. But everything else I participated in, and I may even have piqued myself on singing the hymns rather better than some of the natives. When Mass ended, I filed out of my pew, turned slightly to face the tabernacle, and genuflected gracefully with a sweep of my skirt and a bow of my head. Then I pivoted on one foot and ran smack into the woman kneeling behind me.

I have since learned to be wary of people suddenly dropping to their knees in the aisles. It's not a hazard one encounters much in Protestant churches. :) But that poor woman-- I wonder if her state of reverence has recovered yet?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Male/female ratio at Caltech

I just found out that the freshman class at Caltech (my alma mater) is 37% female this year, the highest percentage ever. Apparently they've been heavily recruiting the women. My class, which entered in 1996, was about 25% female, and I remember that women were offered free transportation to prefrosh weekend while men had to pay their own way.

Caltech's administration is really bothered by the unequal sex ratio-- heck, a lot of students didn't like it much either, and the men tended to complain more than the women. :) As for me, I really liked my fellow students and never felt much affected by the fact that most of them were men. In fact, I remember feeling when I came to Caltech that I was finally at home. High school had more girls, but at Caltech the culture was hospitable to my interests and I felt like myself.

Other science and engineering colleges have a more equal sex ratio, but that's because they lower their standards for women. Caltech has never done that yet and I pray to God they won't bow to the pressure and start! Aside from the obvious injustice of discrimination on the basis of sex, it would just be a shame to create a student population in which the women are less qualified than the men. Caltech was hard and I sometimes felt like the dumbest student there (not an uncommon feeling, I think), so it was a great comfort to me to know that I had been judged by the same standard as everyone else and found capable.

May 2010 update: In 2009/2010, 38% of all Caltech undergrads and 30% of grad students are women, according to a Caltech newsletter I received. The 2009 freshman class is 42% female, which is the highest ever. After reading the article in that newsletter I'm no longer sure if Caltech still uses the same standards for both men and women, but I don't have time to blog it right now.

October 2010 update: The incoming freshman class is 40% female.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Convert faux pas

My dad was singing in the Christmas concert at my parents' Congregational church tonight, and I went with Mom and Caleb to see it. Good concert. At the end the pastor gave a benediction, and since the Christmas concert is one of the biggest occasions of the year in that church, he finished with a seldom-heard flourish: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." My hand automatically began to make the Sign of the Cross, but I just managed to suppress it when I noticed that nobody else was moving! They looked so strange just sitting there. Later I theorized with some friends that my old pastor was just trying to smoke out the Catholics. :)

The last time I was at my parents' church was Easter Sunday, again to hear my dad sing. On that occasion the pastor chatted with us a bit (we were in the front row), and to my horror, I realized I was gearing up to call him "Father." I stopped myself just in time.

Being Catholic puts all these little instincts into you and you don't realize how strong they are! I haven't genuflected in a movie theater yet, though. :)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sermons that make you go hmmm...

My dad is giving my mom an iPod for Christmas, and I'm in charge of loading it up with some sermons, since she enjoys listening to them while walking in the morning. (It's a blessing to have a mother like that.) My parents are Protestant, so first I downloaded all the sermons from a local church they often go to-- lots of churches podcast these days; it's great. Then I found some recordings of A.W. Tozer, and a reading from C.S. Lewis. Then, in search of more stuff she'll like, I bethought me of searching for mp3s of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon was a minister who lived in the 1800's and delivered such powerful sermons that books of them still sell today. Mom loves his writing. And lo, I found many recordings of his writings on the web! I started paging through the long list of available sermons, looking for some that might have a Christmas theme or be especially interesting. And I came across this: "Popery is Antichrist - A Holiday Pastime Essay on Popery".

Looks like a Christmas theme, but I don't know... I don't think that one's going on the iPod. :)

Ooooh, but you know what is going on? "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"! Yes, possibly the most famous sermon ever preached in America, the one by Jonathan Edwards that sparked the first Great Awakening (and was mentioned in Supertones lyrics, but that is neither here nor there)! What a warm fuzzy gift for Christmas this iPod is going to be. :)

Friday, December 07, 2007

A stint at the convent, part 4

Also last night: the doorbell rang and I opened it to three people-- a woman and two teenaged boys. The boys were both dressed in black with spiked hair and multiple piercings.
"Hi, what's up?" said I.
"Um..." began one of the boys, seeming a bit embarrassed, "I was wondering, could I borrow a priest for just a minute?"
"Oh, there aren't any priests here. They're in the rectory, two houses down," I said, and pointed them up the street. "This is the convent; they're all nuns in here."
"Okay," said the boy, and the three of them left.
I suppose I'll never know in this lifetime, but I'm really curious about what they wanted to borrow the priest for.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A stint at the convent, part 3

The little office/sacristy where I sit when I'm volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity has its own bathroom. Tonight one of the residents (tall and very pregnant) arrived with a friend and asked if her friend could use it. No problem-- the resident waited for her friend, who closed the door behind her when she came out.

About ten minutes later the resident came back. "Could I use the bathroom myself?" "Sure!" She reached out and tried to turn the doorknob, but couldn't. Her friend had locked the door behind her.

We both stared at the door for a second. I certainly didn't have the key, and the sisters were off praying and not to be disturbed. "Oh no..." moaned the resident, "she probably didn't even know she did it..." She paused. Then she reached out for some 3"x5" cards on the desk. I thought she was going to leave a note for the sisters, but instead of grabbing a pen, she ran the cards down between the door and its frame. Click. It was open.

"I'm not a thief!" she laughingly assured me as she disappeared into the bathroom, and I was left feeling embarrassed that I, a Caltech alum, had not known that simple lock-picking trick. I'll remember it, though. :)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fun nun story 2

I got to meet the coolest person on Monday: Sister G (I never know if people would mind being named on a blog, so let's just go with initials) from the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She's a bit younger than me but has been a sister for several years. I asked her how she decided to join her order, and the story she told in reply had me cracking up almost nonstop. This is a little bit of it:

Sister G had wanted to join the Carmelites for years. She had to wait to attain their minimum age of 21, and then she had to wait a bit more because of other circumstances, but she fully intended to join them and they measured her for a habit and everything. She visited the Carmel and got to try the habit on. A nun was helping her, and asked, "What kind of petticoat do you like? A full one or just from the waist down?" Sister G didn't know what a petticoat was, so she just asked for a full one. The full petticoat turned out to be a sleeveless dress-like garment with pockets in front. "I guess this is a sort of apron," thought our heroine. The nun left to let her change, and said, "Call me when you're ready!" So Sister G put on the habit with the petticoat on top. "Okay!" she called out the door, all excited. "I'm ready!" And the nun returned to find her wearing her underwear outside. She tried to hide her shock. "Oh... you know... I think that goes underneath...."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I should make cookies for every saint

Feast your eyes upon these cute little Santas! I have done my duty by the season. Mom and I made the spice cookie dough (with cinnamon, cocoa powder, ginger, allspice, lemon peel, and ground pepper) together and Mom rolled it out, cut it in circles, and baked it. Then I did the faces: white and pink frosting, blackcurrant eyes, candied cherry noses, shredded coconut for the beards, and marshmallows for the pompoms on the hats.

They were made for RCIA class at church. I often bring treats for that class and for a while I was bringing them with Halloween napkins, decorated with bats and jack-o'-lanterns. We joked about the pagan napkins. So when Mom saw my plans for Santa Claus cookies she laughed that I was going pagan again. I loftily informed her that these are, of course, St. Nicholas cookies, and what could be more Catholic than that?

Thursday would have been an even better day to make them-- it's December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas!

Santa's fur-trimmed red outfit evolved from what some Catholic bishops used to wear (St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey.) In fact, bishops of Rome have worn the camauro since medieval times, and still do. I love it that they don't let some silly commercialized Santa Claus stop them. :)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Materialism, part 2

Regarding the passage from Wisdom, below, you don't hear many people say, "Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless." But that's materialism's logical conclusion. If it's true that there's no God, and reason is nothing but "a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts", then it isn't true that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". Rights granted you by other humans rather than by God aren't unalienable at all-- they can be taken away for any reason that seems good. And who decides which reasons are good? Whoever has power to do so. "Let our might be our law of right." We see plenty of that in our country: the very old, the severely disabled, the unwanted unborn, Terri Schiavo, anyone diagnosed prenatally with a genetic abnormality, all are in danger of being put to death. Most of these people are killed on the theory that it's a kindness, that their lives are not worth living any more, or won't be worth living. ("What is weak proves itself to be useless.") So materialism leads to humans arrogating to themselves the right to decide which lives are worth living. The issues today are different but the underlying philosophies look the same as they did a few thousand years ago....

Atheistic materialism in the Bible

Today I'm thinking again about the display I saw in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit which declared that only in these enlightened modern times have people been able to ask, "What do I believe?" (Original rant here.) A beautiful little piece of countering evidence is a chapter from the book of Wisdom, which is one of the deuterocanonical books (sigh) and which I started reading for the first time a few months ago. The book is believed to have been written by an Alexandrian Jew in the 1st or 2nd century BC, and this excerpt is an impressive portrayal of atheistic materialism which shows that that belief system was alive and well back then and looked just like it does today. We see here that people two thousand years ago had different beliefs, and were able to examine those beliefs and decide which was best. Which is such an obvious statement I can't believe I'm bothering to make it, but it's apparently not obvious to everyone!
Chapter 2
[1] For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
"Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
[2] Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.
[3] When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
[4] Our name will be forgotten in time
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
[5] For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

[6] "Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
[7] Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass by us.
[8] Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
[9] Let none of us fail to share in our revelry,
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
[10] Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.
[11] But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Exmas and Crissmas, by C.S. Lewis

Some years ago when we were clearing out my grandparents' house, I raided the bookshelf and came away with one priceless treasure: an old edition of God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis, engraved on the flyleaf with my grandfather's name. It's a collection of Lewis' insights in bite-sized pieces. Since today is the beginning of the Advent season, I offer the funniest essay of the book for your enjoyment. This is a look at how the British kept Christmas fifty years ago, written as if Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century B.C., had landed there and made a careful record of it with his outsider's eye. But you don't need to know anything about Britain or Herodotus to recognize modern-day America in the essay. All that's changed is that every other house now has a six-foot blow-up transparent snow globe with lights, falling snow, and its own soundtrack, on the front lawn!

One more note: I only just realized that Niatirb is Britain spelled backwards. Here I've wondered for years where Lewis got the name....

Exmas and Crissmas
A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as a the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, "It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left." And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, "It is, O Stranger, a racket"; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Twins seem to be my lot in life"

That's a quote from Anne of Green Gables. :)

I think in our next catechism class, I'm really going to buckle down and spend some time trying to learn the kids' names. Here we are two months in and I hardly know them yet. But much more ridiculous is this: it wasn't until two weeks ago that I noticed that in our class of about twenty students, we have not one, but two pairs of Asian boy twins. One pair sits in the back; they goof off, smile cute buck-toothed smiles, and are overcome by giggles if I make one of them lead a decade of the Rosary. The other pair sits in front; they look more serious and know the answer to questions like "What's the third Luminous Mystery?" But all four of them look so alike! (Yeah, yeah, I might not think so if I were Asian myself.)

I have a friend who's face-blind. I'd love to know how she would have coped with this situation. :) Possibly, with her awareness of the need to overcome the disability, she would've been proactive with the class roster and nametags and discovered the twin twins earlier! It's really kinda pathetic that it took me so long to realize I've got two pairs of twins on my hands. My excuse is that we only have them for an hour once a week...