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. :)


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 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:

(dĭk'tā'tər, dĭk-tā'-)

    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...

Friday, November 30, 2007

An embarrassing moment, with worse disaster averted!

The fifth-graders in our catechism class were having a hard time remembering our names, and I realized that was because we'd never really written them out. So a few weeks ago I printed our names on the whiteboard: "Mrs. Julie --------" (the teacher), and "Miss Rachel Gray" (I'm her helper). It wasn't until I had neatly finished this task that I realized I was writing not with a dry erase marker, but with a permanent sharpie.

You know that sinking feeling of impending horror that comes when you realize you've just done some incredibly dumb thing that's going to be very hard to fix? I tried to ignore it. But half an hour later, Julie attempted to erase the board and our names insisted on staying put in all their colorful glory. She was surprised but went on teaching. I stood to the side and reflected that we were in the very same classroom that Fr. Ed uses for his class on the Ignatian exercises. I go to that class and I know most of the people in it. And they know me. I envisioned us all gathering there, bright and early on Sunday morning, and finding a whiteboard proclaiming in red marker: "Miss Rachel Gray!" I had to get the names off before then. Alcohol would help, but I didn't have any on hand. As the class broke into groups for a project, I was making desperate plans to drive the hour plus to work and bring some ethanol back to church...

Then I reflected that if you have dried, set nail polish on your nail, and you paint over it with a fresh wet layer and immediately wipe the nail with a paper towel, both layers of polish come off. Weird but true: the top layer liquifies the one underneath. It was worth trying, so I grabbed a genuine dry erase marker and traced over our sharpied names. And then they erased! Cleverness cancels out stupidity! :)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Apocrypha Apocrypha Apocrypha

I've kept this to myself for a year, but now I must speak.

There are seven books of the Old Testament (as well as some bits and pieces in a few other books) that aren't in Protestant Bibles because they were kicked out in the 1500's as the Protestant denominations formed. At the same time Catholics started referring to those parts of the Bible as the "deuterocanonical books". Deuterocanonical means "second canon", which is a bit misleading. The phrase also sounds dorky, has eight syllables and is a pain to say.

Protestants have their own name for the disputed sections: they call them the Apocrypha. That name means "hidden things". It's shorter, it's got punchy consonants and it sounds really, really cool. Pop culture knows this. There's a rock band called Apocrypha, a sort of new age folk Hungarian musical album named Apocrypha, an episode of Law and Order named Apocrypha and an episode of the X-Files named Apocrypha. Do you know any X-Files episodes named The Deuterocanonical Books? Yeah, I didn't think so. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before some celebrity baby gets named Apocrypha Paltrow.

I'm Catholic now and I can't let my side down. But I wish we'd ditch our term and steal the Protestants' instead. It's just so much more fun to say!

Apocrypha. ;)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Janitors make my head tingle

More than ten years ago I was sitting on a bed in my new dorm room in my first year at Caltech. (Hey! I see you doing that math in your head! Stop that!) I had an open book on my lap and an apple in my hand. The door behind me was open and Rosie, our friendly custodian from Guatemala, was moving down the hall cleaning all the rooms.

She came into mine and started scrubbing the sink. I bit into my apple, and a rush of tingly feeling swept through my head. It was very pleasant, but odd. The apple was sweet and crunchy; I looked at it with suspicion. Had it fermented? Was my fruit alcoholic? Eagerly I took another bite. The tingling continued.

Eventually it faded, and I never did find another apple with that same wonderful effect. But most curious to relate, I did feel that effect whenever Rosie came in to clean the room! I soon theorized that one of her cleaning solutions was causing it, and I used to inhale deeply as soon as she arrived. I told no one what I was experiencing.

Four years later I landed a job in the cytogenetics department of a cancer hospital. A young man from Africa used to come through at the end of every day to empty our trash. He wasn't pulling any cart of cleaning chemicals with him-- just a big trash barrel. Yet whenever he swept by me, that same headrush would start up. I was oddly pleased, the first time it happened, to realize that my days of getting all tingly in the presence of a custodian were not over after all. I figured there must be some chemical scent clinging to his clothes and setting me off

Now I'm in a developmental biology lab, and the janitor, a middle-aged east Asian man, comes through once a day. He brings his big trash can and nothing else. And yes-- he makes my head tingle.

At this point I'm wondering if there really is a mysterious cleaning chemical out there that's so potent just a whiff of it sets me off. Maybe I've just developed a very odd psychosomatic reaction to custodians. At least it's a pleasant one!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness' sake!

Spot the logical flaw in those lyrics? If you're being good because Santa will know if you're not, then you're not being good just for the sake of goodness, now are you?

Okay, so I could never write anything that catchy. I can still critique it!

Here's Calvin's take on it all.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pop culture: always narrowminded.

The last post leads to this thought:

All sorts of things used to be considered immoral and aren't any more. There are plenty of books and plays and especially movies that celebrate brave young people who dare to challenge the stifling, uncompassionate, narrow-minded rules of society. I think of Age of Innocence, Vera Drake, The Apartment, People Will Talk, and anything about Oscar Wilde. But those stories are all set at least fifty years in the past. They have to be; it's hard to manufacture such a storyline today. Who'd care if a rich woman fell in love with a poor man? Who'd care if lovers engaged in an affair without getting married? Who'd be shocked if a woman was pregnant out of wedlock? Now, I imagine, people think we're nearly free of the tyranny of the old rules. It's still fun to celebrate knocking them down, but it's an exercise in nostalgia.

Except that, when you look at it, the worldview presented to us by popular culture today is extremely restrictive in its own way. And it's in Hollywood, that cheerleader of destroying outmoded morality, where that worldview is in strictest force.

Seen any movies recently where the lead character falls into bed with someone and this is presented as a bad choice? (When it's not a spy with a sexy double agent?) Any movies set in the present that show an attractive and well-adjusted adult who remains a virgin though presented with opportunities not to be? Any movies with a character who is both intelligent and deeply religious, in such a way that he is actually influenced by his religion and doesn't just wear it like an aesthetically pleasing charm? Any movies that show a person who's attracted to the same sex, who manages with great effort and therapy and prayer to change his or her orientation to straight, and is very happy to have done so? Any movies that show a man trying desperately to convince his girlfriend not to have an abortion and feeling shattered when she does anyway?

All these things happen in real life, but you wouldn't know it from the movies. You may say that movies avoid these scenarios because they want to avoid controversy. But I think it's clear that there are plenty of movie makers who embrace controversy, as long as it offends the right people. Offend the wrong people, the liberal powers-that-be in Hollywood, and that movie's not likely to get made.

The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I feel about pop culture. :)

I'd love to hear about movies that break those trends, if anyone knows of some!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

An appalling roommate law

A real estate question-and-answer column in the LA Times offers this information to a woman looking to advertise for a roommate: "The Fair Housing Act... makes it illegal for newspapers to publish an ad that indicates your preference for someone of a specific race, religion, national origin, disability, gender or familial status."

I can't quite believe I read that right.

This isn't a landlord looking for tenants. This is a woman looking for a roommate. And she's not allowed to advertise a preference for who she wants to live with?

Even if she wanted to advertise specifically for a green-polka-dotted neo-Nazi genius Branch Davidian divorced psychopath, it should not be the state's business to force her to consider any others! What happened to right of association? (Of course a newspaper may choose not to run such an ad based on its own policies; that's a different matter.)

But what's most unbelievable is that she can't express a preference for gender. Her ad must be open to men as well as women. Never mind that any modest woman would be deeply uncomfortable living with a man who's a complete stranger. Never mind that two unmarried people of the opposite sex living together is something that was once universally considered to be flat immoral. (Amazing to think, only about fifty years ago the practice was even outlawed in many places.) Of course it still violates the moral standards of a great many people. But that's just too bad-- the state now forces you to be open to it. Mustn't be biased.

Of course if she wants a female roommate she can politely decline any men who might answer the ad. But think of the needless trouble and stress this puts her through (and the waste of time for the men). It's all courtesy of lawmakers who surely were not in the fix of needing roommates themselves. I bet they felt very good about their open-minded tolerance as they voted to force others through these difficult hoops.

Well, that was a somewhat unenlightening rant, but I wanted to get it off my chest.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's wrong with this paragraph?

From the novel Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown:

Now the girl in front looked furious. "You're implying Christianity is just some kind of ... repackaged sun worship!"

"Not at all. Christianity did not borrow only from sun worship. The ritual of Christian canonization is taken from the ancient 'god-making' rite of Euhemerus. The practice of 'god-eating' -- that is, Holy Communion -- was borrowed from the Aztecs. Even the concept of Christ dying for our sins is arguably not exclusively Christian; the self-sacrifice of a young man to absolve the sins of his people appears in the earliest tradition of the Quetzalcoatl."

There's something very specifically and obviously ridiculous here. Spot it, my smart friends! I myself was reading so quickly and uncritically that I didn't notice!

Peter T. Chattaway has the answer.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving message

On this day when our entire nation gathers to give thanks, I would just like to say...

You're welcome. :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A surprising reflection

It was about 12:40 PM on a bright Sunday afternoon when I pulled into one of the last free parking spots at St. Peter Chanel for the traditional Latin Mass. I spent a minute in the car putting on a mantilla (a friend gave me the tip of sewing it to a headband; easier and more reliable than bobby pins). I swung my bag over my shoulder, put on my big bug-eye sunglasses, and started to step out toward the church. Then I caught my reflection in the tinted window of an SUV. And I looked like someone. I couldn't quite say who, but it was a certain look I'd often seen before and never dreamed of sporting myself.

Now, a few weeks later, I have figured it out. The reflection in the SUV window was that of Jackie Kennedy. Yes! Except for the fact that she was a glamorous brunette beauty and I am not, I looked just like her!

I tried to find a picture of exactly what I mean, but these will have to do. This illustrates the sunglasses, this illustrates the mantilla, this illustrates the odd things you can buy from Franklin Mint, and this illustrates that Paris Hilton likes the look too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 3

One part of the exhibit that arrested my attention was the timeline of all the various world religions. It was introduced with a little blurb printed on the wall which explained condescendingly that peoples throughout history have been shaped by the religious beliefs of their regions, but "today for the first time we can ask: 'What do I believe?'" Seriously. That might not be an exact quote, but it's very close. The exhibit clearly indicated that only in these modern times have humans had freedom of thought.

Of course, even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that people in Jesus' day, both Jews and Gentiles, were plenty capable of evaluating religious claims for themselves and accepting or rejecting them as they chose, regardless of what others around them did. And the exhibit's own timeline provided another example: Plato, who questioned the existence of the Greek gods. Even without historical examples, it's pretty clear from human nature that individuals, though greatly shaped by their culture and by the information available to them, still draw their own conclusions in their own minds. To suggest that people of the past weren't able consciously to examine their beliefs is profoundly stupid.

I'm interested in that kind of stupidity. I'm sure whoever put the exhibit together for the museum was very highly qualified in terms of educational and career credentials. A PhD in history or religion, no doubt. Perhaps well-known in his field-- I'm sure you'd need to be a scholarly heavyweight to get to write material for a major exhibition in a major museum. And yet this person, whose raw intelligence may well outstrip my own, made an unbelievably moronic statement which nobody corrected. How could this happen? The only explanation I can think of is that it happened the way certain embarrassing blunders in the news media have happened: when everyone involved on a project is biased the same way, mistakes that flatter that bias don't always get caught.

It's true all right that people are profoundly influenced by the culture around them and thus can miss wider truths. I wonder if the class of modern-day intellectuals who seem to staff most museums realizes that this applies as much to them and their rarefied culture as to any other in history.

"Today, for the first time, people can ask, 'What do I believe?'" Just unbelievable. It takes a very highly educated person to be that dumb.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dead Sea Scrolls, part two

I expected the San Diego Natural History Museum to offer a thoroughly secular presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it met my expectations. :) The exhibit did make the point that the scrolls of Biblical books found at Qumran were more than a thousand years older than the previous oldest-known Hebrew copies of those books, and the Scrolls' agreement with the newer copies showed the accuracy of scribes' copywork over time.

One manuscript was all in an old style of Hebrew text except for four dots • • • • that appeared often throughout the text. This, I learned, represented the name of God. Not only would devout Hebrews not pronounce the sacred name of YHWH aloud, but apparently they sometimes wouldn't even write the letters. (I've seen Jews on the Internet today write "G-d" instead of "God" for the same reason.) Other scrolls were written in the familiar square-ish Hebrew letters, very similar to modern Hebrew (at least to my untrained eye), but any time the name YHWH came up it was written in a much older form of script called paleo-Hebrew. This of course made the name of God leap out from the page. I leaned close to these scrolls, fogging the display case with my breath, to trace the lines with my eyes and find all the places God's name graced the text. I could envision an ancient Jewish scribe carefully copying the letters, perhaps meditating on the passage as he inscribed it, deeply engaged in his sacred task as would be the Christian monks hundreds of years later.

(As a side note, I always thought it was incredibly sad that Christian troops in one of the Crusades, who were supposed to be retaking Jerusalem from the Muslims, found time to attack Jewish synagogues and tore up or burned the copies of the Torah they found there. Not only was that a terrible failure of charity, but they were desecrating their own Bible!)

Most translations of the Old Testament use the name "Lord" to translate two different Hebrew words: Adoni and YHWH. The first is a generic title that could be used for a human person of authority as well as for God. The second is the proper name of God, the name he gave to Moses. In order to distinguish between the two words, Bibles will usually print "Lord" for Adoni and LORD for YHWH. Thus you get a verse like this: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!" The word LORD jumps out at you-- just like it does in the Hebrew originals. I always figured that printing LORD in all caps was nothing but a way to deal with a shortage of English words to correspond to all the Hebrew names. But perhaps the translators were also trying to translate the visual distinctiveness of the name of God, inspired by those ancient Hebrew scribes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Spoken by my boss when I walked into his office today:

"Geez, you got thin!"

He didn't sound like he was trying to be complimentary, but this spontaneous exclamation from a crusty old guy was a most gratifying compliment. :)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Two Missions and the Dead Sea Scrolls

What a fabulous day I've had. After morning prayer and Mass at my church I gathered with three friends and one of our priests who to our delight had been willing to join us on his day off. We drove down to San Juan Capistrano to check out the mission, then drove to the San Diego Natural History Museum to take in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, then went straight to the Mission Basilica of San Diego de Alcala and explored that, then stayed for evening Mass in the mission church, then had dinner and went home. I doubt I'll find time to type all I thought of the three sites, so let this sum it up: it was interesting!

The company was as much a part of the fun as were the destinations. We prayed the Angelus at noon, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 PM, and midday and evening prayer as the sun was setting, and the Rosary in the car both driving there and driving back, and were just generally very Catholic all day (except perhaps towards the end of the drive home when we three girls in the back seat became very tired and hence a bit silly...) It was just like a one-day pilgrimage.

The San Diego mission turned out to be my favorite part of the trip. San Juan Capistrano was crowded with kids on school trips and volunteers and other visitors, but at the San Diego mission we were almost the only ones there. We wandered around in the twilight just absorbing the history of the place. As with all the grand old churches I saw in Mexico, I found it both thrilling and comforting to be at a site that has great significance in the Catholic past and at the same time is still a living parish. (Boy, if that kind of thing inspires me I really ought to go to Rome.) There was a new chapel on the grounds that housed a fabulous old altar and throne and choir stalls, all from the 1300's, carved of wood and brightly decorated. There's adoration in that chapel every month. Father told us the choir stalls are like the ones they use in the Carthusian monastery where he spent a few years; there's another example of something being really old and also current. In the last light of day we went to the beautiful garden in the central courtyard and settled down to pray the Hours. ("BYOB," someone said as we left the car. I had to think about it before I realized that meant "Bring your own breviary.") I've done morning prayer often enough but never midday and evening prayer; the readings are altered to suit the time of day so it was interesting to find a different tone in the Office than I'm used to.

Now I'm exhausted, but you know, it's a good tired.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How to catch a husband

I found this advice to single women in an old book. It's from 1936 or before:

"Men, as a rule, are much less willing to marry than are women. Therefore, since most marriages are brought about by the young woman, when you meet a good man whom you think you would like to marry, go about the business of tactfully, intelligently, and virtuously interesting him and, after you are sure he is the man for you, subtly persuade him to believe that he wants to marry you and with chaste and charming womanly wiles get him to propose to you. Don't wait for the young man to take all the steps. Employ the approved and maidenly arts by which the interest of a man is won. Make the natural and quite proper overtures to marriage."

I find I have two quite different responses:

1) This would've been a great deal more interesting had the author troubled to enumerate the "charming womanly wiles" and "approved and maidenly arts" to which she referred.

2) Honestly, if the man has to be subtly persuaded to believe he wants to marry me, I might rather let him off the hook.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Do I dare cut my own hair?

All this time I've been paying professionals to trim my hair every few months, and now I find there are lots of pages on the Internet about cutting your own. In particular, you're supposed to be able to get a decent layered style if you just gather all your hair on the very top of your head, twist it around, and trim off the end with haircutting scissors. The model pictured here does a lot hair product commercials, and she declares that she always cuts her own hair using that very method. If it's good enough for a hair model...

My hair grows slowly and I trim it reluctantly, only when the ends are clearly getting uneven. My dream is to have it long, but every time I have it trimmed I run the risk of encountering a hairstylist who lacks sympathy for this goal. She wants my hair looking neat and even, and she can hardly resist cutting off two and a half inches when I ask for one.

I'm pretty sure I can go scissors-happy myself just as well, and for less money and time! Next time I need a trim, I'm trying it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I always wondered what that French oath meant; it sounds like it means "sacred blue". Turns out, that's just what it does mean. It's a reference to Mary, who's so often depicted wearing blue.

When I was confirmed my sponsor gave me a little icon of Mary and Jesus, very similar to this picture here, in which the Blessed Mother is dressed in royal scarlet red. That's how she was commonly shown in icons in the East in the early centuries of Christianity. So how did blue come to be her color? Apparently, it happened because in medieval times, the way to get a good rich blue pigment for paintings was to crush up the semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli. Naturally that was very expensive, and so blue came to be associated with the most sacred subjects.

I illustrate with this miniature from a cool manuscript I found today. Eve on the right feeds the forbidden fruit the serpent gives her to her children, causing their death, while Mary on the left feeds them the Eucharist, the body of her Son, giving them eternal life. (Meanwhile, Adam just looks out of it.)

Addendum: I can't resist adding this picture too, since it's such a good example of the sparing use of blue except for Mary, and since it's just a rockin' awesome painting of Pentecost. This was painted by Jean Restout in France in 1732. It's fun to look at the different reactions of the disciples: some prayerful, some apprehensive, some terrified and doing their best to run. :) Mary is the calmest and happiest of all, but then, she's been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit before.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Liturgy of the Hours

Today, as on any other morning at St. Peter Chanel, the Liturgy of the Hours began at 7:25 AM. The priests began gathering with the laypeople in the back of the church a few minutes before that. I studied the "Saint Joseph Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours", which offered the following cryptic instructions for today:

10. Sat. St. Leo the Great, Po & D (Mem) (1548)
From Com of Pas 1748 or D 1777
OOR 1067, Rd 495 & 1549, Pr 1551
MP from Com, Ps 1072, Ant & Pr 1551; DP 1076
EP I (of Sunday) 1081, Ant & Pr 500; NP 1233

Theoretically, this gave me all I needed to know to find the right place in my breviary at all times.

So we kicked off as usual with the Invitatory on page 613.
Then over to page 1777 for the antiphon.
Psalm 95 is always on page 613.
For the antiphon after each strophe we flipped back to page 1777.
The hymn was taken from the Common of Doctors of the Church on page 1784.
Psalmody came from the Psalter, Saturday of Week III, page 1067.
The first reading and its responsory were found on page 495.
The second reading and its responsory came from the Proper of Saints on page 1549.
Morning Prayer started in the Psalter on page 1072.
The reading came from the Common of Doctors of the Church, on page 1783.
The antiphon came from the Proper of Saints, page 1551.
The Canticle of Zechariah is always found on page 620
We flipped back to page 1551 for the antiphon at the end.
Intercessions came from the Common of Pastors on page 1765
The Prayer was in the Proper of Saints, page 1551.
And at last we snapped our breviaries shut. The whole thing took about twenty-five minutes and a mere twenty or so page flips.

When I was learning how to pray the Hours, I found pages of instructions on the Internet brightly telling me how easy it is, how effortlessly I'd be reciting the Liturgy in very short order. It's all been much simplified since Vatican II, they assured me. Now laypeople can join in, no problem.

It may be true that the Liturgy of the Hours has been greatly simplified, and we do indeed have lots of laypeople joining in. But I'm here to tell you that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy!

As a side note, today we were commemorating a man who was made Pope, and after his death was declared a Saint, and given the title "the Great", and made a Doctor of the Church. Doctor Pope Saint Leo the Great. His mother must be so proud. :)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fun nun story

I heard this from a friend who volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity. The MCs wear white saris, and over their saris are blue-striped veils that cover the head, gather on the shoulder, and sweep around the whole body down to the ankles-- see here, here, and here. I haven't quite ascertained the exact shape of these things. Putting them on seems slightly complicated, but the sisters told my friend that they do it quickly, in the dark, every morning.

But one day a couple of them needed to see a doctor. My friend took them in her car, and ended up in the exam room with them, where they had to take off the veils and put them back on afterwards. And they got all confused. It was light in the room and they could see what they were doing, which really threw them off!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Overweight" people live longer

According to this article. It says that if you divide people into four categories-- underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese-- the overweight people have the longest lives. At least, I assume that's what the article means; what it actually says is that overweight people "have a lower death rate." I wouldn't wish to impugn the accuracy of the scientific reporting of the New York Times, but I'm pretty sure the death rate is holding steady at 100% for all groups. :)

But anyway, if overweight people really live longer, we obviously need to redefine the category!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fires, part 3

I've mentioned the friends of our family who own a house up in Lake Arrowhead right where the recent fires were burning. I fully expected the house to be burned down, but it was spared along with the immediate neighborhood, thanks be to God. Hundreds of houses in that town did burn, though, including many within walking distance of our friends' house. The area must be quite burnt out-- all those homes with their priceless memories destroyed....

My parents have gone to visit with our friends for a night, and my mom thought she'd bring a hostess gift. So what do you suppose she bought them? A candle. Yes, you read that right-- Mom got them something that burns.

When she realized what she'd done, she figured she might as well play it to the hilt. So I printed out a picture for her of some firefighters desperately keeping back a huge blaze from a lovely home, and Mom wrote "Happy Housewarming!" on the picture and taped it to the candle.

We're a tactless people. :)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Yes sir, yes sir, five bags full!

(From Baa Baa Black Sheep, just in case you thought I was going crazy.)

It was with great satisfaction and not a little ruthlessness that I began a few days ago to yank books off my shelves and pile them into bags. My big double case was overstuffed with every book I've bought or been given from childhood on, and most them, in all likelihood, I will never find time to read again. Ditto for all the movies and TV episodes I taped so carefully on VHS in years past.

So out with the collection of Star Trek books (I saved a few sentimental favorites). Out with all the war books (except everything on prisoners of war in WWII; that's an arcane interest of mine that fills a whole shelf by itself). Out with all the erudite classics I bought for high school and college classes-- I'm glad I was forced to read them once, but if I ever want them again that's what the library is for. And out with the videos of nearly every playoff game the Spurs were in from 2002 to 2005. (Did I really tape Spurs vs Suns, Round One of four postseason rounds, Game Three of a seven-game series, from 2003, complete with postgame interviews, and with commercials carefully edited out, on the theory that one day I'd need to see it again? I guess I did.)

Somehow I couldn't part with any of my Walter Farley or John R. Tunis books. They were the joy of my childhood and I went to such effort to amass them. I still remember the thrill of finding the last two Tunis books I wanted at the legendary Powell's when my parents took me there one summer.

And needless to say, nothing C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien ever touched was thrown away, except for some books of which I had multiple copies. But even with those exceptions I was able to fill five big grocery paper bags full of books to be donated. I thought of selling them on eBay but the average profit margin there would be about $1.50 per book, not nearly enough to compensate me for the time spent listing and shipping them.

As for the videos, they're filling up an entire garbage can. (They're not stacked very efficiently in there, but still!)

Feels good to rid myself of possessions!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The date of Christmas

Okay, another Christmas post. My treasured anti-Christmas pamphlet says that the Catholics purposely set their feast on the same day as a Roman pagan festival. I grew up believing this myself (though I thought of the culprits as "the early Christians", not "the Catholics"). And I always thought, "So what?" If the pagans had a feast of joy and celebration and light on one of the darkest nights of winter, who wouldn't want to appropriate that? Why not steal their thunder, take their nifty feast, and celebrate our God instead? All's fair in love and feastdays.

But recently I looked into the date of Christmas, and apparently it was originally celebrated on many different dates in different places, and nobody saw fit to preserve a record of why any of those dates were used. There doesn't seem to be a shred of direct historical evidence that December 25th was chosen to upstage Natalis Invicti. It looks like the rumor of this started with some post hoc ergo prompter hoc reasoning, and the story was so plausible it stuck. It might be true, but it's a theory rather than a fact.

Anyway, I assume the pagans had a lot of feast days and so did the Christians. It'd be odd if some of them didn't overlap. Did you know that if you have 23 people in a room, the odds are mathematically in favor of two of them sharing a birthday? But that's another post.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Banning Christmas

The incident related in the last post was not the first time I ever heard of people wanting to outlaw Christmas. It has a long pedigree, as I first learned from an excellent summer school history teacher, Dr. Fisher. He told his surprised American History class that he considered himself a Puritan, like the pilgrims who settled our country, and he enjoyed relating to us a story that took place at Plymouth Plantation in 1627. I'll quote it from Governor William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation (he sometimes refers to himself in third person):

And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But most of this new company [adventurers who had arrived on a later ship] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar [a sort of javelin throwing], and some at stool-ball [a game something like cricket] and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least not openly.

Dr. Fisher informed us that stool-ball is very similar to baseball and so baseball in America goes way back. :) For our Puritan forefathers, getting rid of Christmas was part of "purifying" Christian doctrine and practice from Catholic influence. They didn't believe in ornaments and ritual in churches and got rid of statues, musical organs, genuflecting, vestments, crosses, and the like. I grew up in a Congregational church, a denomination that descended from the Puritans. The walls of our church buildings were all white and clean, except that the children's Sunday School rooms had plenty of bright decorations, and the high school youth group's room had one poster of the names of God that our wonderful youth pastor had put up. To my surprise, a group leader told me that this poster was somewhat illicit, as our walls were supposed to be bare. At the time I didn't understand the policy; now I wonder if it had anything to do with our denominational history.

Getting back to Christmas, in 1644 the Puritans in England's Parliament passed an act forbidding it. "The day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen." So this wasn't just a fringe idea in one small American settlement! The colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut also outlawed Christmas at one point.

I conclude that when the ACLU kicks up a fuss every year about Christmas celebrations, they're only fighting for the preservation of our Puritan heritage. :)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

I'll be sure to wear the mantilla to my next Christ Mass ;)

Not long ago I was looking to buy another mantilla for church. It's been years since Catholic women were all required to wear veils or hats at Mass, but a number of them still do and I found plenty of places to get mantillas online. Eventually I settled on buying one from a woman who lives on a farm somewhere and makes clothes to order. One can tell from her site that she's a happy, convinced, fundamentalist Christian.  Her order form offered the option of requesting some free literature, and I, intrigued, said yes.

So my order arrived yesterday, accompanied by a whole stack of booklets, pamphlets, a magazine and even a small book, all on various Christian subjects. The stack was neatly tied with a lavender ribbon, and right on top was a little gem of a pamphlet entitled: My Lord Has Not Told Me To Do It: The Christian and "Christmas". This tract argued earnestly that Christmas is of pagan origin and should not be observed. I was immediately arrested by the third paragraph:

As for the word "Christ-mass," we prefer not even to take it on our lips. Think of associating the title of our blessed Lord with the abominable, Romanized, heathen mass! The modification with the Greek initial (Xmas) is preferable to us, for it at least leaves the precious name of our Savior out of the shameful affair.

And this:

As to its origin, Xmas was originally a Roman heathen celebration of the birthday of the sun god. It was taken over by the Catholics, with such changes as suited their abominable idolatry. And then the Protestant daughters followed the "Mother of Harlots" (Rev. 17:5), and modified it a little more till they think they are now honoring the Lord by its observance.

Now that's customer service!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fires, part 2

I would just like to note that in view of the fires currently burning up California, it was interesting to find this in today's Gospel: “I have come to set fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing!"

Some friends of ours have a house in Lake Arrowhead that's right in a burning neighborhood. Many nearby houses are destroyed, but the way they know theirs isn't is by calling the home. If the phone still rings, they figure it hasn't burned yet.

A stint at the convent, part 2

Well. I'm back from volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity convent, and I've had an even more interesting time than before. But for good reasons! As soon as I arrived it transpired that Sister Nirmala, who's been heading the order since Mother Teresa's death, was about to visit that very convent! She's normally at the Motherhouse in Calcutta but has been touring the houses in this part of the world. Her visit was supposed to be more or less a secret; if I hadn't happened to be there I never would have heard of it. So my volunteering pays off much more quickly than expected. :)

In due course she arrived, surrounded by nuns and preceded by a number of MC brothers and a flock of laypeople who'd somehow heard of her coming. She's a very small woman with a peaceful smile and she made a point of shaking everybody's hand and asking everybody's name. We all gathered together-- residents, nuns, volunteers, miscellaneous folks-- in the chapel where she gave us a short talk, thanking us for our work, talking about Mother Teresa and so on. A speech by Sister Nirmala was actually the main feature of the show that I mentioned taping in the last post, so it was lovely to see her live.

I also met a woman from Calcutta named Florence who'd been taught by Mother Teresa back when she was a teacher with the Loreto nuns before founding the MCs. Florence showed me her album stuffed with pictures and letters from Mother. And I talked to an MC brother who's stationed in Guatemala but happened to be in this area during Sister Nirmala's visit. He said he'd been a brother 18 years. I asked the first question that came to mind: "Do you like it?" This seemed to amuse everyone else in the room. "It's what I am!" he said. The brothers dress simply in pants and sandals and plaid shirts; only when you see a bunch of 'em together do you realize it's their habit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A stint at the convent

Last month I called up the Missionaries of Charity convent in the LA area and asked them if they needed volunteers. I thought perhaps they'd invite me to help them pass out lunches to the homeless folks, or put me to work in their soup kitchen. Instead, I was told they needed someone to spend four hours at the convent on Thursdays answering the phone and the door so the sisters won't be interrupted on their weekly day of prayer.

This sounded less exciting than feeding the poor, and so much the better. So every Thursday off I go to the convent, which doubles as a home for pregnant women and their young children. It's in a very poor neighborhood, but is sandwiched between a lovely old Catholic church and a big Catholic school. There are about 14 women and six kids living there, besides the six nuns. I sit in a front room with a phone and take all the calls ("I don't know... It's the sisters' day of prayer so they've got a volunteer answering the phone and I'm not sure what they'd say; would you be able to call back tomorrow?") and get the door. In the kitchen is a button that can be pressed to summon one of the sisters in an emergency. If some calls from another Missionaries of Charity convent, that qualifies. :) Here follows a blow-by-blow description of one recent day:

-- Right after I arrived the bathroom upstairs flooded. I made a command decision to press the emergency button. The youngest sister answered and dealt with the situation. She's white, but not American. I've been informed that 1 in 12 American women who try to join the Missionaries of Charity don't make it to first profession of vows. Apparently it's a very hard lifestyle and rich girls can't hack it.

-- A social worker came by to talk to one of the pregnant residents who had just arrived on Wednesday. The two of them stood right outside the open door of the room where I was sitting and had a conversation about her situation that included much personal detail. I didn't *try* to overhear....

-- A 4-year-old boy I'd seen before came to visit me. He wanted to know why I have "bumps" on my arms. He meant my freckles-- he's black and I don't think he's seen freckles up close before. It reminds me of the kids I met in Swaziland last summer, who had the same frank curiosity about physical differences. "Does she paint her hair?" they asked when they saw me.

-- One of the residents came by, looking upset and softly asking for a sister. I reminded her they were at prayer. She said with tears in her voice that she was bleeding and feared she was having a miscarriage! Second use of the emergency bell. We waited together in the front room while she sobbed and sobbed and I tried in vain to think of comforting words that wouldn't sound hollow. The youngest sister showed up again and drove her to the hospital. I started praying the Rosary, hard.

-- The mother of the resident who'd arrived on Wednesday called, wanting to speak to a sister about her daughter. I said apologetically that the sisters weren't available on Thursdays, and she began to vent a bit to me about the situation, giving all the personal detail from her side of story! I feel I know that family now; hope everything works out for them. :)

-- The 4-year-old returned and applied himself to the clasp of my watch. Eventually he managed to open and close it with his own little fingers. He probably spent twenty minutes working on the problem; quite a focused and determined child.

-- The doorbell rang. It was the woman who'd gone to the hospital! "How are you?" I gasped, and she said she was all right; it wasn't a miscarriage and she'd been sent right home. Thank God! In Latin for nerdy Catholics: Deo gratias!

-- The 4-year-old showed up yet again. "What?" he asked when he saw me smiling. "I'm just happy about something," I said.

-- After four hours a sister came to relieve me. I gave her some tapes I'd made from EWTN commemorating Mother Teresa on the 10th anniversary of her death. She looked happy. The nuns don't have a TV but they can borrow one from the school next door. Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, so of course they're quite devoted to her memory. They still call her "Mother"; the woman who's now in charge of the order wouldn't take that title and is known simply as Sister Nirmala.

-- Driving home I prayed a Rosary in thanksgiving for the life of the not-miscarried child. The next week when I saw the mother she showed me a new ultrasound picture of her healthy baby. :)

I did not expect my little stab at volunteer work to be so interesting! (And I won't really mind if it's never so interesting again...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The sky over Pasadena this morning was bluer than I've ever seen it, thanks to very strong Santa Ana winds blowing all the smog back to LA from whence it came.

Of course, those same winds whipped up fires in San Diego, Lake Arrowhead and other places, and half a million people have had to evacuate their homes.

But the wind died this afternoon and a haze of white ash rolled over the sky. The sunlight filtering through it produced a lovely golden light. I've never seen the world bathed in such beautiful color. If it's still golden tomorrow I'll try to take a walk around the neighborhood and appreciate it. The sun turned astonishing blood red just before sunset.

I don't suppose people who live near the fires are appreciating it all quite so much...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"How many gods are there?"

I've started helping with a catechism class of fourth/fifth graders at my church. That was the question with which Liz began the most recent lesson. I thought it was kinda basic, until a precocious student in the front row yelled out, "Three!"

I found out afterwards that in RCIA class (which is for adults who are becoming Catholic), Fr. John asks the same question, and he usually catches someone giving the same wrong answer.

The Holy Trinity: principal mystery of our faith. Apparently it's easy to trip people up with this. Try it today!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Why should I be any better than 200 million ex-bloggers?

Well, almost a year later I've decided that this shall be my real blog, since it's ad-free. You'll notice little difference; I never updated my old real blog either. :) Speaking of which, Gartner reports that:
Blogging and community contributors will peak in the first half of 2007. Given the trend in the average life span of a blogger and the current growth rate of blogs, there are already more than 200 million ex-bloggers. Consequently, the peak number of bloggers will be around 100 million at some point in the first half of 2007.