"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Advent Basics and Suggestions

It's getting to be that time again...when Catholics end the old liturgical year and begin a new liturgical year with the season of Advent. With this in mind, I wanted to summarize a few basic characteristics of the wonderful liturgical season of Advent, which is so often misunderstood by Catholics today, especially living in the midst of a culture that begins Christmas celebrations seemingly immediately following Thanksgiving.

1. Advent is penitential in nature. The purple vestments worn by the priest during the season of Advent should be indication enough of the penitential nature of Advent. Since Vatican II, however, some parishes have chosen to embrace blue vestments in order visually to distinguish Advent from the season of Lent. Blue is not an officially acceptable liturgical color for the season of Advent in the Roman rite, however. The violet color of Advent in fact is meant to associate Advent with Lent. Advent was traditionally called "the little Lent" and the penance of Advent, like the penance of Lent, was meant to prepare the faithful for a great celebration. The other penitential liturgical changes for the season of Advent include the omission of the Gloria at the Mass and the omission of the Te Deum from the Divine Office.

2. There are traditional communal penances of Advent. The customary Advent in such places as Rome included a Catholic fast (including meat abstinence) on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Advent. The difficulties of immigrant life in the U.S. led the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore to request a dispensation from this Advent fasting, as well as a dispensation from Wednesday meat abstinence. The request was granted, and the U.S. has never since been obligated to Wednesday-Friday Advent fasting. Eastern Catholics, like the Orthodox, customarily practiced a strict 40-day "Philippian fast" during the season of Advent (the Orthodox feast of St. Philip is celebrated on November 14th, and the fast follows that feast).

3. Advent is a time for preparation. Too often today we associate penance with difficulty and gloominess. Undoubtedly penance does involve some degree of difficulty; the word mortification does come from the word for "death," after all. But the point of Advent penance or Lenten penance or Friday penance is similar in that it is a preparation. Penances - even small penances with minimum difficulty - serve as a constant reminder that something is going on. Penance turns our mind to preparation and helps prepare us to celebrate big feasts, like Christmas or Easter or Sunday, well. Given the demands of Christmas in terms of gift-giving, cooking, etc., Advent concretely lends itself to recognition as a season of preparation. But on the other hand, the demands of these material preparations can distract us from spiritual preparation.

4. Advent is distinct from Christmas. This point really should be self-evident, but unfortunately in American culture today there is no real distinction between Advent and Christmas. Catholics who attend Mass only weekly will notice perhaps an Advent wreath and the purple vestments of the priest, but they will be immersed the rest of the week in "Secret Santas," office parties, Elf on the Shelf, major sales of retailers, ubiquitous Christmas decorations, and Christmas music. Even Advent calendars tend to be Christmas-themed, and some are now identified simply as "Countdown to Christmas" calendars. Liturgically, however, Advent and Christmas are distinct seasons. Up until Pope John XXIII, Catholics were required to fast on Christmas Eve in preparation for Christmas Day; the pope moved that fast to December 23rd, but like other vigil fasts, this Christmas Eve fast was dropped in 1966.

Practical implications: After these few basic characteristics of Advent, we might wonder how best to observe the season of Advent. Especially in the midst of a culture that is already celebrating Christmas, how might Catholics observe Advent faithfully without appearing judgmental or Scroogish to those already fully immersed in holiday celebration?

1. The Advent Wreath. Chief among the liturgical practices of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath, with three purple candles, and one pink. It is a great family tradition to light the Advent wreath each night before dinner.

2. Sing Advent Songs. When you go out in public, you WILL hear Christmas music; that's pretty much a given. In your own space, however, you should sing Advent songs. There are so many beautiful Advent songs that really speak to the longing and preparation of the season. It's a great idea to sing one of these songs when lighting the Advent wreath each night.

3. Voluntary Penance. Given that Advent is a penitential season, it is a great time to take up a voluntary penance. This can be done as a family, e.g. going vegetarian for the season of Advent. The penance can also be done individually, e.g. giving up sweets. Other ideas include increasing almsgiving, adding some special Advent prayers, or being more cheerful.

4. Preparation. All of the above facilitate preparation for Christmas. But there is more that can be done to prepare. Advent is a great time to attend daily Mass. If you are unable to do that, you might take five to ten minutes and at least read and reflect on the daily Mass readings for that day. This brings home the liturgical sense of Advent, including both the longing for Christ's final coming at the end of time and the longing for Christ's birth in Bethlehem.

5. The Sacrament of Confession. Given that Advent is a season for penance and preparation, it is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament of confession. Many churches have confession days or communal services during the season of Advent to facilitate people receiving this sacrament.

6. Dealing with Christmas during Advent. We love Christmas. And that's one reason why it is so hard to wait when the rest of America seems already to be celebrating. How should we handle Christmas parties that take place during Advent? And how do we make our material preparations, e.g. gift-buying, for Christmas without letting the materialism take possession of all our spare moments? These are some of the most difficult challenges to address. Sometimes it is simply impractical to refuse attending "Christmas" parties during Advent. And dealing with kids' enthusiasm for Christmas can make this even more difficult; we don't want to crush their Christmas spirit or make them feel left out when all their classmates have already begun with the Christmas excitement. Hence there is no perfect solution to these problems. Priests in the 1950s suggested avoiding lavish parties and practicing moderation and abstemiousness at other Christmas parties during Advent. Instead of taking the cookie you want, try the one you don't want. Instead of having two drinks, limit yourself to one.

6a. The Decoration Debate. Ideally, Catholics would not put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve, and they would leave them out until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which ends the Christmas season. Sticking rigidly to this can be challenging, given the need for preparation, not to mention the excitement of the kiddos. Sometimes it can be helpful for both of these issues to choose one or two things to do ahead of time. Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, can be a good day for this. For example, my family has sometimes put up our tree on this day. Another idea is to wait until the "O antiphons" begin, marking the last seven days of Advent, and get out one decoration each day. If you can manage it for your particular situation, you might delay decorating altogether until Christmas Eve.

6b. The Nativity Set(s). My kids have their own little nativity set, and they all love to play with it. In the past, I've taken it out right at the beginning of Advent as a way of helping them prepare for Christmas. It almost always, happens, however, that by the time Christmas hits, they are tired of it. This coincides nicely with their receiving Christmas gifts, I suppose, but it also can be a bit disappointing to see them tired of the nativity story. So in recent years, I've delayed taking it out until Gaudete Sunday, or, even better, the beginning of the O antiphons on December 17. Of all the "Christmas" decorations, however, this one - with an empty crib until Christmas Eve, of course! - is the most appropriate for Advent.

6c. Prayerful Material Preparation. Pope Benedict XVI once noted the appropriateness of gift-giving that characterizes Christmas. God has given us the wonderful gift of Jesus; it is good for us also to be generous like God in our giving of gifts. And yet this can often become a stressful task. Planning ahead is important, and not overthinking gifts is also important. Like any worry, gift-giving and wrapping are a good thing to approach prayerfully, asking for God's guidance in selecting good gifts. Wrapping each gift is a nice time to say a prayer for the person who will receive the gift. Cooking and baking should ideally be done in this same spirit.

6d. The Advent Calendar. Advent calendars come in all varieties these days...although mostly with Christmas colors and themes. Nonetheless, they can serve as a very practical way for kids (and adults) to prepare for Christmas. My kids always love their chocolate-filled Advent calendars. I worry that they don't represent the penitential element of Advent, but we have a tradition of them saying "Maranatha! or Come, Lord Jesus," each morning before receiving their chocolate, and this is a good reminder, not to mention the discipline of only getting ONE piece of chocolate each day.

6e. Spiritual Reading for Kids. Through the years, we have acquired a large collection of Christmas books. There would be too many for us to appreciate them in the brief season of Christmas, so we generally get them out at the beginning of Advent. These are helpful in preparing them for Christmas, and I find that they actually help me think about the meaning of Christmas too!

7. Big Feasts During Advent. Don't forget that there are some great feasts that occur during the season of Advent. One of our favorites is St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. I find this to be a good day to sneak a little "Christmas" into Advent without undermining Advent. My kids put out their shoes and I fill them with candy canes and gold-wrapped chocolate coins. Sometimes they even get a book or a movie...or matching pajamas. We love St. Nicholas, and the candy canes and coins are a great opportunity to discuss his life as a bishop defending the truth and as a generous pastor concerned with the welfare of his congregation. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th is another important feast to celebrate, and given that it is a solemnity, it should offer a brief reprieve from your voluntary penance. December 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a great time to recall the story of Juan Diego in Mexico and talk to your children about that feast. December 13th, the Feast of St. Lucy, is a good day to light candles and talk about Jesus as the light in the darkness.

8. Celebrate Christmas Well. By the time Christmas actually comes, most people are ready to be done with it. They put away their decorations on December 26th and leave Christmas behind for another year. That is not the Catholic way, however. Christmas continues, especially for the octave (the first eight days), but also for the "Twelve Days" of Christmas. Epiphany is within the Christmas season, which technically does not end until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Keeping Christmas going can be just as challenging as was postponing it. A special dessert each day might help, listening to Christmas music, inviting over friends and visiting friends or people in need, or doing extra acts of kindness can help keep the Christmas spirit going. And of course, don't put those decorations away until Christmas is over.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On the Virtuous Introvert: Fanny Price and Mr. Darcy

Introverts are often misunderstood and even criticized for their reticence. It can be easy for others around them to assume that their silence indicates some kind of negative judgment against the more gregarious. Having recently reread Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, however, I was struck with the virtuous character of the introvert Fanny Price, particularly in contrast with one of Austen's other introverted characters, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Neither Fanny nor Darcy are talkative, but the thoughts behind their respective silences are quite different; Fanny's thoughts and subsequent actions are almost always charitable indicating her humility, whereas Darcy's (early in the novel) tend toward criticism, indicating his pride. Though remaining an introvert, Darcy's major character growth comes in his willingness to sacrifice his pride and discomfort in speaking in order to be kind and charitable to others.

Mr. Darcy is contrasted early in the novel with his friend Mr. Bingley: "Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again." (Chapter 3).

It may appear an unfair judgment on an introvert, particularly as Darcy mentions at a later part in the book that he does not feel easy around people and doesn't speak as quickly as he would like: "I certainly have not the talent which some people possess...of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation or appear interested in their concerns, as I often seen done." (Chapter 31)

Had Austen merely left us with the assessments given by those observing Darcy, we might have rightly thought Darcy only to be a misunderstood introvert. However, Austen provides us with the thoughts behind Darcy's quiet behavior. When his friend Bingley approaches Darcy and suggests that he dance with Eliza Bennett, Darcy explains quite clearly why he is choosing not to dance with Eliza or anyone: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." (Chapter 3). In other words, Darcy's silence here does indicate a criticism of those around him. Eliza Benett is not handsome enough, and he is not willing to take on the "leftovers." When Eliza shares this overheard remark with others, it serves to confirm their initial judgment of Darcy. Eliza's mother is quite struck by Darcy's behavior: "So high and conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great!" (Chapter 3)

Austen later describes Darcy as "clever," as well as "haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting...Darcy was continually giving offense." In discussing the ball later, Darcy gives his impression: "[He] had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention of pleasure. Miss [Jane] Bennett he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much" (Chapter 4).

While Darcy quickly grows in admiration for Eliza Bennett, his criticism of her family remains, and in particular, her mother's behavior evokes critique. Even when Darcy finally proposes to Eliza, he does so while insulting her family by noting her inferiority in society, not to mention the objections to her family also led Darcy influence Mr. Bingley to end the relationship with Eliza's sister Jane.

Contrast this early picture of Mr. Darcy with one of Austen's other introverts, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. The destitute niece of the wealthy Bertrams, Fanny is brought to live with them as a child. She is raised amid her cousins, but her Aunt Norris assures Fanny's constant realization that she is not at the same level as her four Bertram cousins: Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. After Fanny's initial adjustment, with the help of her kind cousin Edmund, she becomes a part of the Bertram family, aiding her aunts, listening to her cousins, and helping friends and family as they prepare to act in a play. Fanny, like Darcy, is an introvert. "Her favourite indulgence" is simply to be allowed to "sit silent and unattended to." While at a dinner party at the Grants' house with Mr. and Miss Crawford, Austen writes that "...she found, while they were at table, such a happy flow of conversation prevailing, in which she was not required to take any part...as to leave her the fairest prospect of having only to listen in quiet, and of passing a very agreeable day" (Chapter 23).

Like Darcy, Fanny also often observes the character of the people around her and finds them wanting. Mr. Crawford, in particular, she notices as problematic in his simultaneous attentions to and flirtations with both of her female cousins. Miss Crawford as well she finds to be a bit superficial, as well as having some problematic moral views. When Fanny returns home for the first time in 10 years to visit the Price family, she also quietly observes the problems there. But unlike Darcy, Fanny's judgments regarding these other people do not contribute to her own pride. Rather, her continued kind attentions to such people, and willingness to help them, indicates her charity. She listens attentively to Miss Crawford and begins to reassess her judgment of Mr. Crawford. At the Price home, Fanny uses her own money to solve a dispute between her sisters over a contested silver knife, and she works extended hours at sewing her brother's naval clothes. While frustrated with the constant arguments and disorder of the house, she never complains or criticizes it outright to others, but rather seeks quiet and solitude as she can and aids her family to the best of her ability.

Fanny may appear not merely as an introvert, but also as a pushover. At Mansfield Park, her aunts often command her in various ways, with little regard for Fanny's comfort. Yet when Mr. Crawford proposes to her, the family learns Fanny's steadfastness in her convictions. She is quiet, she is charitable, she is humble, but she is also incapable of accepting a marriage proposal from someone she does not respect or love as she feels she ought...no matter how wealthy he is! Despite the harsh criticisms Fanny receives as a result of her refusal, she remains steadfast. Being an introvert does not mean not having opinions or feelings or convictions. The virtuous introvert does not sacrifice virtue in order to avoid talking; when necessary, she uses words, trying to explain her thoughts to others.

In the case of Mr. Darcy, it is his marriage proposal to Eliza Bennett that is the beginning of Darcy's becoming a more humble introvert, akin to Fanny. Upon reflection on Eliza's strong refusal, Darcy realizes the rudeness embedded in his proposal. When he meets Eliza with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner at his estate of Pemberley later in the novel, Eliza notices a change in his behavior; Darcy seems to have taken her criticisms to heart and has decided to make an effort. Despite the earlier disparaging of Eliza's relatives, he now engages Mr. Gardiner in conversation and walks with them on his grounds at Pemberley, making an effort at kindness and hospitality. Perhaps Darcy never becomes someone who is naturally talkative, but on the other hand, he grows in two particular areas of virtue: humility and charity. He realizes that he must accept Eliza as she is, with her "inferior" connections (and annoying mother!!!). He must show respect for the Bennett family and act kindly to them when they are in distress.

Both Fanny and Darcy prefer to remain quiet, especially in group settings. And yet Austen provides us with a wonderful illustration in these two virtuous introverts. There is nothing wrong with reticence as such. Yet this silence may underlie humble, charitable thoughts or it may underlie prideful, critical thoughts. The virtuous introvert is the one whose observations, however astute, lead the person toward humility and kindness, a willingness to accept the faults of others and yet still to assist them kindly in their needs, rather than criticizing them internally or to more intimate friends. The virtuous introvert, moreover, is distinguished by excellent listening, like that of Fanny's, that grows out of an esteem for others, including those whose natural dispositions tend more toward vivacity and gregariousness. The virtuous introvert is not a pushover, but rather will speak when necessary to defend herself. Finally, the virtuous introvert, despite the discomfort it gives himself, prefers to speak rather than give offense to others by his silence. This perhaps is the most difficult sacrifice that indicates the greatest humility and charity, namely, for the introvert to sacrifice his own comfort and preference for the benefit of those around him. This might easily be seen as having a flipside for the virtuous extrovert. For such a person, the most difficult sacrifice is no doubt checking his talkativeness for the benefit of those around him, remaining silent and listening patiently despite his desire to dominate the conversation. But neither extrovert nor introvert is better; it is the virtue within the person that makes the difference in how this natural disposition is lived in the presence of others.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From Darth Vader to Pirates: The Glorification of Bad Guys

When my son turned three, it seemed as though some special switch turned on in his mind, making him obsessed with heroes and "bad guys." He loves wearing his superhero costume with cape, or, when that's in the laundry, he wears his knight costume, which has a nifty sword holder, perfect for his little plush Haba dagger. I try to give him a vote of confidence by letting him know that I'm counting on him to defend the house from dragons.

Recently, though, his focus has been all about Star Wars. Maybe it's genetic because his dad was really into Star Wars as a child, and indeed, we still have Dad's plush Paploo and Wicket ewoks... as well as Dad's lingering enthusiasm for Star Wars.

Just a few days ago, in fact, while Patrick was waiting upstairs for me to find a book that we'd left downstairs, he was attacked by Stormtroopers, but they were apparently driven away by my guardian angel, his guardian angel, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Patrick. At least, that was the account I received. Of course, I was glad that no one got hurt by the Stormtrooper attack.

It did, however, remind me of something that I find problematic today in terms of merchandising that targets young boys, such as my sons. There often seems to be a particular focus on the "bad guys" that makes them seem cool and hence role models to imitate. I'm sure there are debates as to whether Darth Vader is really bad or just kinda bad or perhaps even remorseful. But I think it's pretty clear that overall he's supposed to be a bad guy. And when I was growing up, I don't remember much rooting for the bad guy. In terms of playing with little figures, I suppose bad guys are needed to play an antagonistic sort of role in the made-up stories of children, but the heroes are the heroes, and they should be the ones that get the attention and the glory.
<em>Star Wars</em>™ Darth Vader™ Backpacks

I get a little worried these days when bad guys like Darth Vader are overly popular. For instance, check out Pottery Barn Kids' extensive Darth Vader product line, from backpacks to quilts. And don't think that I'm simply targeting PBK. I spotted a 36" Darth Vader figure at both Costco and Target within the last year. My son even asked for one! Apparently Darth Vader's "coolness" outweighs his being on the dark side, at least for some.

<em>Star Wars</em>™ Darth Vader™ and Stormtrooper™ Quilted Bedding

And now that you know how I feel about Darth Vader, it will probably not be surprising that I'm not a big fan of pirates. My kids and I have had numerous discussions regarding my dislike of pirates. Piracy, by definition, involves taking things that don't belong to you, making a profession out of stealing things (usually violently) from others who are having goods transported. Reading some Robert Louis Stevenson novels only reinforced my negative view of piracy. Akin to my comments on Vader, I'm not saying that all pirates are completely evil, but I think it's fairly uncontroversial that pirates intentionally practice piracy. From my perspective, that's not good. That's why I'm always negative if my kids mention dressing up as pirates or playing pirates or whatever.

It seems to me problematic when the "bad guys," who play such a role in the imagination of young children, also become cool. Personally, I don't want my children aspiring to be as cool as Darth Vader or pirates. There are much better imaginative role models for them.

Am I the only one who objects?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

Women, Angels, and Interactive Billboards

Recently I came across a story on the NPR blog about interactive billboards. The concept of interactive billboards is interesting and has the potential to be a lot of fun.

However, I was a bit caught off-guard by the Lynx Angel large format digital campaign for Excite fragrance, which has a scent so alluring that "even angels will fall." Details of the ad campaign's success discussed here. I won't post footage of it on my blog, but if you want to see it, you could find it easily enough on youtube. Basically, as a person stepped onto a particular spot on the floor, he could look up at a billboard and see a scantily-clad, sexy-looking "angel" drop down beside him and begin to interact with him on the billboard screen. In the footage I saw, many people interacted with this sexy "angel" in very concerning ways.

My concerns with this ad campaign were twofold. First, the portrayal of women as sexy "angels" that drop down to be petted, molested, etc. The way many people quickly jumped to behavior that I regard as demeaning toward women was alarming, and the way the audience laughed and encouraged it was also alarming. Now, granted, the people interacting with the billboard weren't REALLY touching these women-dressed-as-angels inappropriately, but, on the other hand, it looked like it on the screen (even as it looked ridiculous in real life). Maybe the billboard was no worse than many billboards these days (or just walk past a Victoria's Secret store in the mall), but on the other hand, witnessing what looks like women getting harassed (and the women themselves seemingly encouraging the interaction) is problematic to me, especially given that, well, it was so public and unpredictable.

My second concern, of course, was in the portrayal of angels. I mean, we all know the way angels have been commercialized, whether as chubby innocent cherubs or as lacy-panty wearing winged women. So I know I shouldn't be surprised that another company would use an angel campaign. But I couldn't help thinking what if it were the Archangel Michael dropping down there on the interactive billboard, blood dripping from his unsheathed sword. It wouldn't be an effective marketing campaign, that's for sure. An angel is a messenger of God, and when necessity requires, it can appear in physical form to human beings. But this is not as a sexy woman seducing passers-by and encouraging strangers to touch her. Nor is the thought of fallen angels an appealing concept for me; there's nothing attractive about Satan or other fallen angels.

If this interactive campaign managed to offend me both as a woman and as a theologian, you'll be happy to know that I did like the "Drag Him Away" campaign sponsored by the National Centre for Domestic Violence. In this campaign, the billboard shows a woman getting berated by a man, and the audience can drag him from screen to screen by interacting through their cellphones. Neil Morris, founder of Grand Visual commented: "Handing the public control of on-screen content is a powerful call to action which fosters a deeper level of engagement amongst outdoor audiences. This campaign really drives home NCDV's message to take action and stop domestic violence now."