Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Encounter with Little Drummer Boy

Call me Martian, but it's true that I heard the song Little Drummer Boy for the first time right about two weeks ago. The first two times from the lips of little school children, the third time by the Irish group The Priests. I liked it instantly and perceived instinctively that this was no mere children's song, and there was something grave and romantic about it. The melody hauntingly reminds me of music of the North-West regions of China, where the Uighur minority resides, evoking a time and space far and away.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the song on Wikipedia, and read this:
The story is somewhat similar to an 12th century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (French: Our Lady's Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to which version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both, as in the 1984 television film, The Juggler of Notre Dame.)

There! It all made sense! That legend about the Juggler of Notre Dame is one of my all-time favorite stories. That juggling alone suffices to please the Lady, that joy was the single requisite inside Eden, that play may be a vocation...The legend is pertinent to an artist as well: does art have to attach itself to some utilitarian purpose, find its reason for existence outside of itself? When asked what justified his profession as a painter, Willem de Kooning pointed at an acrobat standing on his head on backstage, replied,"Who asked him to stand on his head?"

And the poor drummer boy played his best for the new born King, and Mary nodded.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

God's Originality

"Allowing God to be original in His work of converting souls," was the subject of the sermon by our priest a while back. It's one that stuck with me. Whether it's due to eagerness to help, or lack of humility, we all at times want to use our own experience to teach, to show "the way." This, the sermon warned, could put us in danger of interfering with God's unique plan for each individual.

To know the difference of giving spiritual counsel, and to stand out of God's way, calls for Prudence, Prince of all virtues.

I knew what God did for me, but I never thought in terms of His "originality." Once I place my memories in that lens, I marvel at all the wonders God had placed at each turn of that pilgrim's path. "How original, He had been with me!" Ten years sitting in the Sunday masses, frightened by what I might read in the Bible, charmed by secular learning and prestige, pestered by the Marxian mantra that "religion is the opiate of the masses", surrounded by a crowd who prided itself in "subversive" behavior and "de-constructionist" worldview...I resisted change.

I had a Catholic husband, with whom I sat in the pew for ten year. He never lifted a finger to proselytise anyone, including me. I caught him watch mass on EWTN a few times, and felt like an intruder into private space. I made an announcement one day that I would no longer go to mass with him, stating that I did not belong to either the Church or its congregation. He said it would be okay if that was how I felt, but he had to and really liked to go to mass, and he just really liked for me to be there with him at mass. Yes, he said, he just liked it that way.

The following Sunday, I got up and went with him again. I did not make another similar announcement, but would not become a Catholic until at least six years later.

I did not mean to write a conversion story here. Many have assumed that I became Catholic simply because I'm married to one. I don't attempt to dispute their assumption, nor speculate what would have been had I married a Baptist, a Quaker, or a vegetarian, but God did seem to have a purpose in planting me in a Catholic pew first, with a Catholic who did not try to convert me.

And the conversion was not a simple outcome of mystifying twists and turns in circumstances, but rather brought into fruition by death and destruction. That's just another part of the whole story of which I will get into later.

I would not be able to stop if I don't put a brake on this right now. All I wanted to show, is in what utter originality, even bewilderingly so, God had steered me. And all this, was brought on by a brief conversation I had with a friend yesterday about faith and Catholicism.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Drive-by Noting

  • Working on a few paintings. Feeling like in love with painting all over again.
  • I had a running list of things that irritated me on a given day that I'd been wanting to let out.
  • I had a running list of cob-webs and dust bunnies in the dark chambers of my own soul which I couldn't, really, let out anywhere.
  • So I went to Confession, in stead, last Saturday.
  • I'm feeling all better now.
  • In my mid-40s I discovered that it's more important to know what I CAN'T/WON'T do, than to know what I CAN/Will do.
  • That is not to say that I haven't discovered the wisdom that it's better that I love Temperance, than hate gluttony; love Prudence, than regret carelessness.
  • I continue to be shocked that people still think being "open-minded" is up-to-date. Same goes for some folk's pronouncement of being progressive without the slightest sense of embarrassment.
  • What's wrong with me?
  • I love Milton Avery. His works remind me of what my late professor H said about Matisse's Red Studio, that it is "a fiction." That, in turn, reminds me of how the Chinese artists traditionally never considered art to be an instrument for mimicking physical reality. Never entered their mind, it seems.

Milton Avery, Birds Over Sea, Phillip's Collection
Henry Matisse, Red Studio

Thursday, December 9, 2010

God's Love Letter

Today's reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and double-edged. To thresh the mountains and crush them, to make the hills like chaff. When you winnow them, the wind shall carry them off, and the storm shall scatter them.
Wow. And this:
I will plant in the desert the cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive; I will set in the wasteland and the cypress, together with the plane tree and pine, that all may see and know, observe and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.
Despair not, you wasteland. This is Advent. Your God has written you a love letter.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Our Fair, Fair, Lady

I simply don't understand why other Christians have problem with our love for Our Lady. What's all this talk about "too much Mary, not enough Jesus"? How does one's love for one's mother diminish his love for God? 

On this feast day of Immaculate Conception, Catholics awake with a recognition that there is privilege on this day. With lightened hearts and steps we rise and flock to Church, almost giddily, in a peculiar mood anticipating an encounter with a fair and exulted lady. Corners around usual anxieties and irritations seem to lose their sharpness, voices soften, greetings more sincere, dour thoughts recedes into distance...All on account that we have just given ourselves over to a most gracious and fair Ambassador, and she will see to the security of our hidden desires and dreams.

Much theology has been written on the Church's Marian doctrines. Beautiful, they are. But concept and  intellect pale against the experience of standing in Mass, singing our love for this Lady of singular beauty, the one who bore the Savior in her womb and raised him lovingly. It is this experience, blood and flesh, that gives me goose bumps. Here I am, amongst many, sharing the very same affection children have for their mother, secure in the knowledge that all will be well. That recognition is world apart from any theory or intellectual appropriation. Knowledge thus freely given, not acquired, is why it is blessed. And one knows it beyond any doubt when one is blessed.

The priest who said Mass this morning is from India. Yet what he spoke was the same affection, the same love. I did not feel the least apart from him, in spite of his heavy accent; he is my brother because we have the same mother.

I love you, Blessed Mother!

Monday, August 30, 2010

popping in

The show is opening in just 3 days. Tomorrow we are driving up to F town to hang the paintings. There is just so much going on in my current life, inside and out. I think me and painting have entered into a new and potentially explosive relationship which I find hard to put in words at present.

Tomorrow is also KDM's birthday and we're going to have a little party for him on Friday. So right now I'm doing what I have neglected doing for weeks and weeks: housekeeping. I admit this is neither my hobby nor forte. I do it because, in Pioneer Woman's words, I have issues. I have an inferiority complex in all things practical and domestic. That reality came to me in various forms and circumstances as late as in my thirties, and I have been over-correcting ever since. But, that is just another long story which I won't get into. When I say "over-correcting," that does not mean that I became diligent and adept in these things, it means an agonizing, guilt-ridden kind of self-denial. And, I won't get into that either, not just yet.

So, if you would pardon me, I'm getting back to the chores so when folks turn up for the little party, they will have an easier time finding place to set their foot.

Oh, by the way, I watched Part III and IV of Lonesome Dove yesterday. I think I love Westerns. Robert Duvall rocks. Next on my movie roster is Therese. I went in the movie store looking for Tender Mercies (starring, ahem, Robert Duvall) under T, saw Therese in stead.

And it's raining! It's raining!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Recipes! Recipes! - paying my debt and some

This has got to be my lucky day. Ever been in an emergency, like, you owe someone a recipe but you can't find the one you painstakingly measured and typed out a couple of years ago for a friend but mysteriously disappeared out of your hard drive, and now you don't know what measurements to mete out to satisfy the need of another dear but take-no-prisoner kind of friend...? Well, I tell you, miracle happens, I mean when you need ideas badly, memory begins to clear a path on its own through the undergrowth inside your tired skull full of mush, uh, I mean, paint and turpentine fume. Eventually the light turns on and you know if you'd just weed through the hundreds of old emails there's a very good chance that you find it.

So, here it is, or, they are:

Recipe for Everyday Fried Rice
-fresh chili peppers or chili powder may be added to the recipe if you like it spicy.

What you need:
  • 4-5 cups of cooked rice (Asian Jasmine rice preferred)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • salt & pepper
  • Cavender's Greek seasoning (optional)
  • 3-5 (or other amount depending on quantity of veggie & rice) tablespoons vegetable or other cooking oil
  • assorted vegetables: cabbage, bell pepper cut into thin strips, chopped onions, bean sprouts, green peas, etc., about 1 cup each or some.
  • 1 cup of diced ham, or 2 strips cooked bacon, chopped; shrimps are excellent as substitute or combined with any of the meats.
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 1 teasp sugar
  • 1-2 tbsp soy sauce (optional)
  •  Heat 1 tbsp oil in wok or large skillet on high, cook eggs till set or slightly golden. Transfer to board or plate, chop or break into small pieces, set aside.
  • Put more (3-5 tbsp) oil in wok, heat on high
  • Drop in all veggies of choice, cook on high, keep stirring until all veggies are tender (if use green peas, add after other veggies are cooked for about 2min.), add chopped ham or bacon. Stir-fry for another 2 minutes.
  • Add cooked rice, stir and blend well with veggies
  • Add cooked eggs, blend well.
  • Add salt & pepper, soy sauce, sugar to taste
  • Add 2-3 tbsp water if rice is sticking to wok too much
  • Add chopped green onion and blend well just before turning off the heat.
Recipe for Everyday Fried Noodles (Chow Mien)
- procedure similar to that of fried rice - combine cooked noodles with cooked meats & assorted vegetables, season with salt, pepper, Cavender's seasoning, soy sauce, and a little sugar. Chili pepper or powder may be added to taste.

What you need:
  • 1/2 lb Angel hair or egg noodles (use up to 1lb of noodles for more people)
  •  3-5 tbsp cooking oil (adjust according to amount of noodles and veggies cooked)
  • 2-3 tbsp soy sauce
  •  2 cloves of fresh garlic (or 1 tsp garlic powder), chopped
  • 1 tsp fresh chopped ginger root
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • assorted vegetables: onion, bell pepper, celery, cabbage, carrots, all cut into about 2" strips or shreds to go along with shape of noodles.
  • meat of choice: cooked chicken, ham, or cooked lean pork, cut into strips; shrimps are excellent as substitute or combined with any of the meats.
  • heat oil in wok or deep skillet on high, till very hot
  • roast garlic and ginger in oil, don't let burn (if use garlic powder, omit this step)
  • drop in all the chopped veggies, stir-fry till all is tender (carrots take longer time to cook so may be cooked 3 minutes before adding other veggies)
  • at this point, cook noodles as instructed on package (if noodles are cooked before veggies are done, keep noodles from sticking by adding oil or butter)
  • drop in meat of choice, stir and blend well, cook 1 more minute
  • add cooked noodles
  • add soy sauce, salt, pepper, sugar to taste (garlic powder too, if used)
  • stir and blend well
  • add some water if noodles stick to wok too much
  • add chopped green onion just before turning off heat

Recipe for Ma Po Tofu 麻婆豆腐
-Tofu is made of soybeans in a curd form, resembling cheese in appearance, available in soft, firm, or extra-firm, at Wal-mart. This dish is best served slightly salty and spicy, with enough thickened broth to top plain rice.

What you need:
  • 1 pound (or square) of soft or firm Tofu
  • 3/4 cup of ground pork
  • 1 can of chicken stock
  • 4-5 tbsp cooking oil
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • Chinese cooking wine (optional)
  • 2 tsp corn starch (mixed with 2 tbsp water)
  • 2 cloves of fresh garlic, chopped
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tsp chili powder (optional)
  • cut Tofu into 1/2" thick, 1" squares, blanch in very hot water, drain, set aside
  • heat oil on high in wok or deep pan
  • cook ground pork in hot oil, stir rapidly till just cooked through (don't overcook)
  • add garlic, salt & pepper, chili powder, soy sauce, cooking wine,
  • add tofu to the pan or wok, stir carefully to keep tofu from breaking too much, blend with meat and seasonings
  • add chicken stock, stir gently so tofu set in stock evenly, bring to a boil
  • turn heat to low, cover, let simmer (slightly steadily bubbly) for at least 30-40 minutes; check and stir every ten minutes; add a little water if liquid is reduced too fast (since tofu doesn't have any taste in itself, it depends on this simmering to soak up the flavor in the meat and stock; the longer, the better, up to an hour. I usually cook tofu before I make other dishes for this reason.)
  • uncover during the last 5 minutes of simmering, at this point the liquid should be reduced to about half and thickened.
  • just before finishing, turn up heat, add cornstarch/water mixture, pour evenly around the wok or pan, stir as the cornstarch dissolves and thickens the whole thing.
  • Stir in chopped green onion, turn off heat, serve immediately.
 AS a general rule, don't let one or any missing ingredient keep you from cooking up any of these. Think about it, and think easily: to make any of these dishes, the essentials are the title ingredient, namely, rice, noodles and Tofu, plus oil and seasonings (in the case of rice, you've got to have eggs, no eggs, no fried rice), whip them up in a sizzling wok, throw in chopped green onions and you are ready to go. Drizzle with soy sauce if you like. That's just an extreme scenario if you are so unfortunate as to find yourself sans any protein or veggie here listed.

A more specifi rule: don't tell me that you don't like Tofu.

que pasa?

I have just finished another flower painting, this after promising myself I won't do another painting until the show is over. I feel my energy zapped out of me but still had to come here to ventilate in words just to feel normal. What's going on: suddenly painting has somehow assumed a dangerous allure, so much so that I have a sensation that with each painting I'm putting myself on the line?

Excavating Memory

I must have been 8 or 9, on that day. I couldn’t go to school. Mom and Dad both worked. After taking the IV needle out of my wrist, Mom, a nurse herself, must have felt it was okay to leave me home alone. We lived in a village, the seat of a commune. Crime was rare. Judging by my memory of the sun, it could well have been late spring.  I’m pretty sure that I had a quilt over me. The lining may even have smelled Lysol, which, having limited means to hygiene, Mom used in washings to disinfect linens.

I lay in bed, feeling well enough to survey the surroundings with my eyes. Even at a time and place as primitive as the rural commune in a remote northern Chinese province, I had an acute awareness that it was unusually quiet, as if I could hear the air moving and the day rotating silently. The sun came in a window either across or above where I lay, steadily dialing across a wall, white-washed now turned-ivory yellow. It was a light white and broad with a suddenness of a flood but did not dazzle. In fact, the wall seemed to have so totally absorbed the sun's brightness it let on no reflection or sheen. Unprompted, I had the startled realization that the unusual silence had its origin in the sun’s generosity. No color or sound stands out in my remembrance, just a salient and unmistakable awakening rising from a murky child consciousness: if this moment could stop and stand still, I would be happy forever.

If my memories are not faulty, intentionally or not, it was the same day (I’m certain that same week, or whatever duration of a period) when a skeleton-like stray kitten appeared through the window and made herself at home on a plate of scrambled eggs Mom had left me (back then, eggs were equivalent to chicken soup for the sickly.Chicken, or, eggs? Go figure.), and feasted to the satiety of her emaciated little body. The cat stayed on, got fat on pig lungs and livers and eventually laid many a litter of kittens over the years until we got ready to bid farewell to the commune in search of a city life where Dad thought I and little sister would get a better chance at education. It didn’t want anything to do with the uprooting move. A chapter of my life had gone hidden with her shadowy protesting withdrawal.

I never had the tool, or word, to unwrap what had happened to me on that day, or what I had awakened to. I often try to reproduce the memory, that sun, that wall, the silent dialing of one across the other...It has always been ghostly but the feeling of happiness is always more real than anything else I remember growing up.

Drive-by Noting

  • After more than a decade of painting, I'm properly falling in love with it. Just now. Yeah, I know, it's unbelievable.
  • What would I do if I didn't have the Friday morning Happy Hour? Are there any words to describe what it is like to be in the One and True Presence?
  • I heard His whisper this morning.
  • In between sessions of frantic painting, I managed to see a couple of Robert Duvall movies. Apostle, absolutely unforgettable,and the first two parts of Lonesome Dove. I think I'm having a crush on the old guy.
  • Gotta paint flowers. Nothing quite like flowers to get me going. Flowers send trembles to my hand, the one holding the brush.
  • I like many artists, respect many, am trigued by some. My lists include the likes of Andy Warhol (not Salvador Dali, no Ma'am, no Sir.) But those who touch me, in a deep, wordless sense, are few, very few. Among these are Giorgio Morandi. Fairfield Porter and Josef Albers are also firmly seated; the younger Sean Scully understands resistance and mystery, a Romantic seeking structure, like myself. What these people have in common, beside their mastery of the craft, is a hidden, hardly noticeable sense of humility, a tacit cognizance of The Other.
  • If I may say I have favorites among the Gospel stories, no doubt the one of the meeting of Jesus and Nathanael tops them all. The whole thing reads like a belle weather, a bliss (very bad analogies but ones I could think of in a pinch). No one talks like Jesus. What He says about Nathanael flattens the notions of Jesus as a human preacher, a social worker, a liberal, even a private and personal shrink. His is the voice of the Rabbi, the Teacher, the Master, the Author, and the Lord. My Lord.
  • Besides, whenever I come to the passage, I can never help the feeling that, the Lord is really talking about KDM, my husband. "There is no duplicity in him." Dead on.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

a few things about Chinese cooking, or, eating

  • If you use a non-non-stick wok, buy a non-non-stick spatula, a metal one.
  • By the way, a non-stick wok is pointless and sissified. (Since girls and boys are virtually indistinguishable these days, the word sissy shouldn't be considered sexist.)
  • The trinity of Chinese seasoning: scallion (green onion), ginger, and garlic.
  • The five-spice powder is no mystery; the five are clove, cinnamon, fennel, anise, and coriander (cilantro seeds).
  • The secret to a good stir-fry is turn the heat on HIGH, then stir fast and furious continuously.
  • Of all parts of chicken, breast is the cheapest in China. Wings, legs, feet, and necks are in much more demand than breasts, which are consider "dead meat," while other parts are "living," because the chicken used them to move, that is, when it was still living.
  • Chinese eat their/our soup at the end of the meal. Actually, we drink the soup, and slurping is acceptable. In Japan, slurping is encouraged for the expression of delight. At least that's what I heard.
  • I ate a frozen persimmon today. Here's how: in the fashion of taking off the cap of a jar, lop off the top with a knife, let the fruit thaw till a spoon can be inserted and scoop out the flesh like you would ice cream. When I was a child growing up in the northern-most region of China, frozen pears and persimmons were among the festive staples during the New Year holidays.
  • The sweetest Chinese dessert isn't nearly as sweet as a moderately sugared American fare in the same category.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

a few things

  • These two need prayers:  Christopher Hitchens and Mel Gibson. They have different demons.
  • Saint Francis de Sale, pray for me.
  • Everything I've done, I only did it without thinking. I mean it.
  • Chatted with my little sister over MSN this morning, who informed me that my dad fell into a coma a couple of days ago at the nursing home where he'd spent his past year. They gave him medication. He recovered. My older brother and two sisters are angels. My brother's wife and my sister's husband, are my angels-in-law.
  • I also have relatives who, while struggling to be on their own feet, assist in taking care my infirm parents with utter simplicity and fortitude. My feelings toward them are beyond gratitude, I look up to, even envy, them. And I must say, it's the Chinese way.
  • My dogs understand "Let's go for a walk!" They get comically agitated and expressive upon hearing these words.
  • Nabokov is a lovely heretic. Reading him is like reading a piece of imperial brocade.
  • I am sweating like the Deepwater Horizon oil well, as it was till a few days ago. I need a shower.
  • My brother's wife, one of my angels-in-law, just informed me, via MSN, that an oil pipe exploded about five miles from her home. All of my sibblings and my parents live in a seaport city where a major oil field is in operation.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Never mind that slide show - it ain't working. The new cam takes terrific pix but I can't/don't have the patience/time to figure out how to make the files small. Besides, I had to return the old Mac to its rightful owner, the one with Adobe Photoshop on it - that's where I did all my photo editing. That's where I felt confident and comfortable doing photo editing. I don't have it now. I don't enjoy messing with photos so much any more.

If you want a peek at my life via photos, just click on that picture in the previous post, the one with the First Things magazine in it.

BTW, I think I like the new cover of FT.

I'm painting a white sheet. Yes, sheet, as in, full, flat. More and more, staring at the work in progress, I find myself asking a self-addressed question, "What's the point?" And my appreciation of these endeavors vacillate between "Ugh..." and "Wow!" in a single day. Does this sound like a crisis?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

$40 scrape-offs

I'm still here ;) What you are looking at in the picture on the left is what painters call a "$40 scrape-off," and I've gone through three of these in past two (?) weeks. Gist is, you paint a picture, you dislike it, you experience existential angst, you sulk...eventually you muster enough get-up-and-go, get off your butt, approach the old object of scorn with a palette knife, and you scrape the painting (not paint, it's the painting that you want see no more) off; if you're careful not to cut through the canvas, you may recycle it and paint something over it. That bit of paint was all I managed to scrape off the latest reject, an oval-shaped, 16"x20" painting. Most of the paint remains on the fabric and would be the surface for the new image if I decide to use it again.

That's the reader's digest version of my misery from recent studio output, all under the pressure of a looming show deadline.

Have you got no pity? Compassion? Do I have to cut off my ear to prove it? Where is that shoulder when one needs it? I'm asking you, and you know who you are.
Good news is I finally got one going, shall I say, sweetly? Don't have the photo image yet as it's very much still in progress.

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Feeling mildly depressed, every touch with reality slightly irritating. Could it be -

1. That I need a haircut, about 3 weeks overdue?
2. That I should abort the painting I'm working on?
3. That I should eat more fruits and veggies, and eat them at the time when I should?
4. That I should exercise?
5. That I should have bought those ravishingly cute sandals I saw on eBay?
6. That I shouldn't have read through Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One in two sittings?
7. That I should put on my Indian churidar pajama pants and tunic and go shopping?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Survived 3-day art camp unscathed. The Pre-Kers didn't have me for lunch. There just wasn't enough of them. The older kids seemed to like drawing the best. Seeing and drawing the rubber animals from different points of view kept them constructively frustrated and busy. My goal was accomplished.

Now it's re-grouping time once again - back to painting. I wish I had 30 consecutive days alone shut in a room made of stone and concrete, doing nothing but painting. Then again that comes off like an excuse even to myself.

EWTN is going to show Into Great Silence again, tomorrow, Saturday, 6/12, 8ET. That means when you finish watching it will be about midnight, and keep in mind, the film doesn't have a sound track. The only time you hear human voices is when the monks are in recreation, from a distant snowy mountain slope.

But it is very beautiful. It brings silence to the forefront, and the silence deafens. Another comparable film is Dream of Light (Quince Tree of the Sun) about Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia. Both would be punishment if you silence makes you nervous.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

the prodigal returns

I know, there really ISN'T any excuse for negligence of this magnitude. Yes, I have been busy, but no one can be THAT busy, not an artist anyway, not I can seriously claim to have been anyway. So instead of giving an explanation, I'd simply get on with next paragraph.

Dear blog, here I am, your prodigal owner. I've come back to say that I am sorry for all that unexplained absence and negligence, and to find out if I have anything to say still. I don't know. I'm just gratified to be back where I once again laid eyes on the familiar and beloved blogger names neatly stacked up in the sidebar. Memories of warm friendship and kindred spirit in the shade of the header's green, hand-picked by me, put me in somewhat nostalgic mood.

On a more definitive note, I have started painting again. And for a painter of my rhythm, a long hiatus means a difficult re-start. The first painting is always difficult to kick off and to carry through. The good news is that I've done three so far. I don't know what to think of them yet because I don't want to be bogged down by doubts. I have to keep on moving so the vultures of the Lord of Inspiration Killer would not swoop down on me and snatch me to the shore of Failure and Despair.

Have I said enough to win your sympathy, and forgiveness to follow?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

...of what-not...

Recently stumbled upon the blog the morning oil  Don't remember how I got there. Had something to do with Flannery O'Connor (haha). Through it I came to know several other artsy blogs including THE UPPERCASE, filled with plug-ins about exquisite things from the graphic art world, eye candies abound.

Not much going on around here. I'm back teaching the 2nd graders this week. We're learning to draw and paint animals from life. No, we don't have real animals in the classroom, although that would have been  preferred. We use the vinyl versions which you can buy from school-supply merchants. I'm focusing on their learning to see objects in three-dimensional space, from different points of view. It's a bit hard for that age, but with patience and finesse, you can get the points across. They struggle and panic a bit, but anxious to "get it right."

I am a firm believer in learning through repetition. Of course educators more "progressive" than I have rather dissed repetition in learning, but as I have little respect for "progressiveness," I positively revel in my reactionary (or wayward?) pedagogy.

Yesterday I gave a lesson on texture and how to use brush and paint to create the illusion of the same. I will take photos of some of their drawings and post them later.

Gotta run. 2nd graders awaiting me. We'll start a jungle painting putting to use what we have been learning last few days: animal form, points of view, texture, brushwork...

p.s....OMG!! I just noticed that Blogger's new editor now has spell-checker on it!!! Makes me want to pop a champagne!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

thought nuggests from reading

Just finished reading The Violent Bear It Away for the second time. Second time or not, I still felt like having just survived a neuclear bomb.

Flannery does not write from a "golden heart" only, she is a superb craftsman, with a "lean and mean" bent for language and keen eye on pattern.

The story has an unmistaken structural symmetry with violence, physical and spiritual, at its core. It begins and ends with a death, a grave, a drunken 14-year-old boy, a fire, a woodthrush called in the same four formal notes, only to "make silence" in the beginning, but grieved against it in the ending... One can pick out many of such motifs throughout the story and realize the pattern that has made the story, the work, the thing, through wich she devoted to the Endower of her genius.

She makes what ought to disgust, disgusting; what ought to infuriate, infuriating. Hers is an incarnational art. Ideas are only generated through the concrete. Understanding this respect for the concrete is essential to understanding the Catholicity of her stories.

I am at the same time reading James Joyce's Dubliners, a collection of short stories before he went incoherent. I read the last of the collection, The Dead, in a college course and was blown away by the man's wizerdry of painting by words. The Catholic Joyce knows the sovereign power of the concrete, and commands it with grace. In these early stories you already sense the dread and irony which would become unbearably aloof and detached. You dread with the characters but have a hard time being aloof with the author, not when you know there's a Flannery O'Connor. At the end of each story, I'm always happy that it has ended. No lingering bomb effect.

As Forrest Gump says, that's all I have to say.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I felt exceptionally light hearted today, perhaps because we had the day just to ourselves, me and KDM.  All was quiet, unhurried, unlike our shared recurring dreams in which we are  perpetually going somewhere, always in transit, frantically trying to catch a plane, board a train, furiously fumbling for passport, money, or ticket, fighting to close a bulging and busting piece of luggage...Sometimes, the hotel we stayed would physically disappear when we returned from a local market, or if it stayed put, its doors and or stairs somehow shifted from place to place as we tried to find our way back to our room...

None of that. We had an easy, care-free day. We went to the AM Mass. Father's jubilant mood reached a highlight as he successfully coaxed an "Alleluia!" out of the usually mum and dull "Catholics." From where I sat, I could see directly over the congregation, on the opposite wall of the church, the Icon of Jesus breaking through the tomb stone while the Roman guards slumber.

After the Mass we drove home, ate Cream of Wheat, fixed extra creamy by KDM with strawberry jelly, banana and blueberry. 

 We retired to the porch to read after the brunch, while sufficiently hydrated on coffee and O.J., until the silence lulled us into a sweet and gooey kind of drowsy state, which obliterated any alertness necessary for reading. Regretting not having a hammock to nap in, KDM suggested we sober up by taking a walk down through the wood to the pastures. Our three dogs dully tagged along.

We came out of the other end of the pasture onto the gravel county road up a steep hill leading back to the house. Dogwoods are in full bloom but you had to cut through jungles of brier and vines to get down to the valley where the trees are. Once you get close to the tree, the snowy tops clearly visible from up on the road disappear because they are above you and indistinguishable from the tender green leaves. We come in here every year when the flowers are in season to take some home. I am flower-crazy and dogwood is simply irresistible.

Any how, the flowers pictured here are the result of our expedition. If I have time and will power, there'll be a painting, or two, of the subject (presently I'm working on a different picture.)

To close the day, I cooked round steak, red potatoes, salad for dinner. While the steak was in the oven, we sat on the rock in our little rose garden and said a rosary, sipped wine, pet the dogs, till dusk turned into night.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cross: Collectively

Last night I watched part of the Stations of the Cross led by the Pope on EWTN, and thought I noticed a sorrow on the faces of the crowd which, I had not in previous years.

Lent, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, cannot be the same for Catholics world round. Not this year. Complacency, plague-like; triumphalism, if any, has been shattered. And it is well for us it is so.

We have been attacked, shouted at, spat on, smeared, blackened, but mostly, humiliated, and the best we can hope, humbled.

Our priest broke down, nearly sobbed, during homily at yesterday's service. He apologized for however he might have inflicted hurt to anyone in the flock. He had been saddened, angered, and humbled, by scandals and sensational reportings about the Church; he was angry because ever since the sexual abuse scandals broke eight years ago, the face of priesthood had been altered, to the point of fear to interact normally with his own flock and little school children.

I sensed that his apology was all he could offer to remedy the injury for which he was not responsible. Yet taking responsibility, confessing and paying the debt of others, is quintessentially Catholic. The sins of one, of a handful, of many, inflict the whole. Collectively we must suffer and atone.

I sent the same priest an email a few days ago, to express my distress over the scandal and confusion. This is what I wrote:
"As Catholics we care about the Pope, the Church, but we mostly want to be told the truth, by both the Church or the media. Fairness is the most basic rule for reporting. With the rising temperature in the attacks and anti-attacks, facts are often overlooked, or willfully ignored. Both sides can be guilty of these. The Church teaches us to use reason, and not to be carried away by passion or ideology. I'd be the first to admit it is EXTREMELY hard to do, given the sharply divided political and social reality we face today. I came into the Church convinced it's the citadel of Truth, and still will not accept anything less. I understand the Church is made up of sinners, including the pope. I'm not afraid to look at the wounds, sores, scabs, filth, and dirt in the dark recesses of the Body of Christ, I need to know what's there and how bad things are, so that I would know what to do.

If it's time for sackcloth and ashes, I will not spare myself."

Friday, April 2, 2010

we call this Friday good

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

-T. S. Eliot, East Coker from Four Quartets

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Today I went to Confession!

I DID IT: I went to Confession!

I will spare you of the feet-dragging and nail-biting. It took me eight months, while it had used to take me thirty days as a freshmen Catholic. And I knew, did I ever, know, that Graces and wonders flowed from that little room, that little kneeler, behind the screen, and these words: "I absolve you..."

Resurrection, multiplied.

It will be easier from now. If I've gained any insight this Lent, it's the new comprehension of  praticing faith SIMPLY. Staying on track is impossible without well-ordered and routined devotions. Anyone who attempts otherwise is too proud, and must be humbled.

I want to get back on track very badly. I really do.

latest painting is a still life

Untitled, oil on canvas, 16"x20"

Still wet. Fruit of three day of labour, doubt, irritability, disgust, despair, change-of-mind, illumination...

At the end of the first day, I thought it was a mistake and had a flat and defeating sensation in my stomach, the kind you have when realizing that you may have just made a mistake too unpleasant to correct. Among other issues, I realized that I'd used a regular incandescent light bulb in stead of the day-light type for the still life, and it casted over everything in a light too yellow for what I intended.  I didn't know if I'd take down the whole setup the next day and redeem the canvas by turning it into a portrait of a ghost buster.

The next day came, after having my coffee, I sat down on the same stool, picked up the brush, began by tidying up the vase behind the flowers which was in dire need of a better proportion. I continued to paint, ignoring the yellow cast. Nothing exceptional, stomach still flat, though less defeated. Then came yesterday, the third (didn't paint on Sunday). In the morning the painting still had a measuring cup placed to the left, and in front of the bottle holding the flowers. I scraped it down, painted the foreground (table top), and in stead placed a small wooden container toward the back. I thickened the paint in every part of the painting, worked and re-worked the color values and intensity. The bottom edge of the table was an after-thought, sorta, because I decided the lower part was too spare and in need of a division.

You may have spotted the signature. I'm usually negligent about signing my paintings, to the much annoyance of KDM's. I often got calls from patrons asking me to sign a picture they'd bought. It's not that I thought signing one's work is vain, I simply couldn't decide where and how to sign it without unbalancing the work's organization. Recently I began to correct the situation, especially having discovered that signature was an effective way to put a full stop to a work in danger of being over-worked.

I'm glad that I resisted giving it up, resisted saying "that's good enough." Just the opposite, several times I said to myself "That ain't (excuse the hicky voice - I'd been thick into Flannery's stories) good enough", and went on with little assurance, a stoic face plus some "intestinal fortitude" (KDM lingo).

It was the first painting I've done since the December exhibit. A new start.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prayer to St. Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings

Prayer to St. Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings

O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand towards those we are looking for! May all our movements, all their movements, be guided by your Light and transfigured by your Joy.
Angel Guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling to you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the Province of Joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong--you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene, and bright with the resplendent glory of God. Amen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Updated: You Don't Wanna Slander Saint Joseph

(Oops, just noticed that I left out the second paragraph of the Anchoress' post, the best part with choice words)

Today the Achoress has had it, she let it go, unleashing fury and eloquence. I've never been much for cheerleading, but I feel like doing just that. I want to hold up my McDonald drive-through coffee and say "Go Anchoress -I'm lov'in it!"

The pen which she had so long labored to tame and constrain turned into a speedy sword tearing through falsehood and shattered it into a thousand glittering shards.

If she's risking the sin of anger and uncharity, like she confessed in the same piece, she's suffering with and on behalf of the rest of us. For that, dear Achoress, I will return the favor with extra prayers, mental kind to boot, no kidding.

For a headstart, this is how she began (for the video of the Pelosi, object of her demolition, you have to click the link above to see. I can't figure out how to embed it onto Blogger):

I’m sorry. Almost nothing that has come from this woman’s mouth has infuriated me like this.
This woman is a profound grotesque who gets virtually everything wrong here, from what feastday it is, to the kinds of Catholic religious sisters supporting her monster’s bastard of a bill.
Note, because it is important in the face of her stupidity, her mendacity, her slander and her willingness to use any-and-all means to achieve her ends, the Catholic sisters who vehemently oppose this health care bill, and are not considered news-worthy by the media, or relevant by this glammed-up guttersnipe, Pelosi.
First off, Nancy, this is not the feastday of “St. Joseph the Worker.” That feast day is May 1, and it is a simple (and optional) memorial. TODAY is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, in his role as the Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Provider and Guardian for the Child Jesus. A solemnity is not an optional feastday, and Pelosi, who was educated by religious sisters and went to a Catholic college, should know that.

Her ignorance is almost sublime. “Italian Americans” certainly do honor St. Joseph, but they do not “pray” to him. They ask him to pray for them, before the Throne of his most holy and almighty step-son, the Christ.

It is highly doubtful that St. Joseph, who was faced with an unimaginable event, one fraught with challenges, things unknown, social questions, difficulties and sacrifice, would be a happy endorser of a “life-affirming health care” bill that includes the federal-funding of abortions, sterilizations, contraception – undoubtedly, down the road- euthanasia.
You want to read the rest, if only to learn how to make words of bile do martial art.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

some update

Second day of spring cleaning - all started with the cleaning out of my studio yesterday. The daffodils are already blooming, weathers have been ideal for outdoor painting ( I just don't like to say plein air, and I do all I can to avoid saying it). I'm not ready to paint outside yet, but I take advantage of the good feelings I get from the sun and all things springy. I think KDM is on the same frequency since he's taken up building the corral he'd been planning along all winter.

Our dogs must be on the same frequency as well. Scooter in particularly, has resumed her routine of chasing bugs in the pasture. She does this hours on end and runs in circles of no bigger than 20 feet diameter. When summer comes in full swing, she will do this with flies and butterflies. She's like the kid who says to herself, "Do it again!" over and over.

I'm throwing away things cluttering my studio including chairs, table, hinged doors with mirror on them, cans and bottles, old paint tubes. I've even burned some of my older paintings and drawings. I've asked KDM to agree with me on the necessity of another hefty metal storage shelf, and pretty much let him know I WILL have it whether he agrees or not (he thinks such requests are little more than thinly veiled pre-conditions for being artist, which, I admit, is at times true. Not this time, the shelf must be there, I've already picked out a spot.

I have not painted since the last exhibit. I'm ready again. My hands are happily itchy. Let's start with some still-lifes.

Good news via the Cardinal Newman Society: Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal Newman later this year. The society offers this prayer as part of its campaign for the cardinal's eventual canonization:

"Eternal Father, you led John Henry Newman to follow the kindly light of Truth, and he obediently responded to your heavenly calls at any cost. As writer, preacher, counsellor and educator, as pastor, Oratorian, and servant of the poor he labored to build up your Kingdom.

Grant that through your Vicar on earth we may hear the words, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the kingdom of the canonized saints.'

May you manifest your servant's power of intercession by even extraordinary
answers to the prayers of the faithful throughout the world. We pray particularly for our intentions in his name and in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen. "

Monday, March 8, 2010


Just added someone to my blog roll, dieciocho, whose author has become one of the biggest threats of my life - who, when pushed hard, threatens to adopt me to be her mom. In other words, I'm dealing with an obstinate, crafty, devious, wheelin-n-dealin menace of a teenager.

BTW, you can also find her in the slide show on this blog under "My People." But I warn you not to be fooled by the angelic face.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Margaret, Are you Grieving?

This is the second time I'm dying with Flannery O'Connor - the first time when I was reading her letters in The Habit of Being, now her biography by Brad Gooch. I've come to the place where she wrote a friend from her hospital bed, dying of lupus. After thanking the friend for a Byzantine mass offered for her, she closed the letter with the first two lines from this poem (italics mine). This post is in honor of Flannery and my second dying with her, much regard to mortality:

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Spring and Fall

to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday gibbers

Some stray thoughts, quote me not -

*I have a friend who is easily hurt, to whom I would like to advise: "Stop being hurt, start being." But I'm not giving that advice because nobody has asked me to, not even his self.

*KDM hasn't been to see a commercial barber in a year because I have been cutting his hair. He doesn't mind my using him to learn the trade, a free haircut suits him fine. To make the routine more agreeable it is usually carried out near the kitchen window on a bright day, where his coffee-filled belly meets the stroking fingers of the sun seamlessly, and he promptly dozes off to a distant mental plain amongst the monotonous snipping of my scissors.

*KDM and I went chair shopping today. It occurred to me that I never buy household furnishings by myself because I don't have firm opinions for what's best for our abode. But if he presents two or more options then I often come to a quick decision, with which he almost always concurs. I wonder if it says something about my originality, or, the lack of it.

*Saint Patrick's Day is very near. My husband is big part Irish but hardly Irish-like. This frustrates my romantic longings and tender conceptions for the tribe of Kelts. My findings in him for some hints or representations for the Emerald Islander limit to a short tamperer and a positive disposition for potatoes. The latter, I have come to realize, is rather more of the disposition he shared with tribesmen of a different sort: those who tinker with earth or otherwise work with their hands.

For that matter he's not even very well informed about his ancestral roots. His consciousness for being Irish is rather of a diffused type. His only emotional allegiance seems to be completely to the country he was born into: America, where he needs not to be overly conscious of his older roots and won't get in trouble for being tribally agnostic, where the number of tribes frustrates anyone's need to be tribal.

*I heard that some big city people who don't believe in God are staging campaigns on public buses with slogans that say something like "We don't need God to be good." There's truth in that statement, as in "virtuous pagans," and Communists preach morals and have their version of saints. But my second thought is that it really is a comment on what they deem to be the creed of religious people. Christians are notoriously "nice people," Christian children endlessly told to be "nice" with one another, and many a Christian evangelists paint Jesus the quintessential "nice guy." So if the pagans think our objective is no more than "to be good," we can't really blame them.

Is that all there is to it?

I would think the ravishing beauty and prospect of being face to face with a Triune God, its unfathomable matrix of joy and ecstasy that the saints have written and told, that, I would think, is our reason to be Christian.

*Next time I give Thanks, I'll thank God for making me a creature capable of being "shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter." (GKC)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

art of the day

Sometimes I see things on the web that I REALLY, REALLY like -

New York Has Two Feet of Snow, Via: The Worley Gig, via First Thought

Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday morning Flannery

Why is it almost poignant to read the biography of Flannery O'Connor (by Brad Gooch), a woman writer whose lack of sentimentality sometimes reads like a deficiency?

But who raised peacocks?

And who responded to a certain fellow Catholic literary luminary's conclusion that the Eucharist was "a symbol, and a very good one too," with a "well, if it's a symbol, then to hell with it" ?

And who said that she'd rather die for her Catholic faith than taking a "bath" for Her at Lourdes?

The poetry of Flannery O'Connor, I suspect, is sealed in that statement she made about herself that she really is "a hill-billy Thomist."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

the puppies are gone

So I told you that when we got home from our trip, we found that someone had dropped off two puppies at our place, expanding the canine population to five on our farm, right? We kept and fed them, and spent more than a little quality time watching them play and inhale their two daily meals. Not wanting to be attached, I named them Thing One and Thing Two although I really wanted to call them Stanley and Todd, or something like that.

Thing One and Thing Two were growing rapidly and their presence were causing more anxieties on the farm: bitter and sweet for the two humans who have a weakness for canine antics, confusion to the three dogs in residence, and the front and backyards densely plastered under unwanted organic fertilizer.

Thing One and Thing Two had to go. This last Wednesday I finally sat myself down and whipped out an ad that said "free puppies to good homes" and dispatched it by email to the Sunday Classifieds, then prayed to Bishop Sheen for help at Sunday Mass. I picked Bishop Sheen because I'd seen him on EWTN the day before. I'd thought that the impish grin on his face while he waited for audience's reaction to his joke had to be the best definition for the word "winsome." While I kneeled to pray I saw that grin again. "Humor me, dear Bishop: find a home for the puppies."

We were flooded with phone calls that day, and that day only. Thing One went to a newly wed couple who practically swooned on first sight; Thing Two struck smitten a thirty-something man who showed up with his Mom in the driver's seat. He called it "Horse" on catching first sight of the dog through the glass door. "Ain't you gonna take your baby?" asked the mom. "Yes I'm gonna take my baby." was the reply and he went with the dog in his arms and sat both of them in the passenger's seat. I had the slightly dreamy feeling that the mother and son pair had walked straight out of a Flannery O'Connor story.

The phone calls and visits made our day unusually sociable. I thanked Bishop Sheen for his humor and gave him all the credit. As the excitement calmed a bit, I went back to look at the Classifieds and it occurred to me, that maybe, just maybe, that the ad was accompanied by this cute picture might have helped too -

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why We Need Lent by Fr. George Rutler

I want to share a reflection on Lent by Father Goerge Rutler which is just too good to keep to myself. It was written when Pope John Paul II was still alive, but nothing, not a bit, is dated about the piece.

All italics are mine.

Why We Need Lent
Fr. George Rutler
Lenten days bring two images immediately to mind, at least to my own idle mind. The first is of the bishops' gathering that first established Lent in 325 during the great ecumenical council in the Turkish town of Isnik — then called Nicaea. Some of the bishops there had been mutilated in the persecutions of the emperors Maximin and Licinius. A dubious record says there were 318 bishops in all, but we do know that their fifth canon ordered a time of fasting and penance lasting 40 days that we now call Lent, presumably because Moses, Elijah, and Christ had fasted 40 days. There are bishops maimed like those Nicean bishops today in China, though our government and many corporations have not advertised them. When one of them, Ignatius Cardinal Kung, was released in 1985 after 30 years in prison, he was surprised to learn that the Church's Friday meat abstinence had been changed. Evidently he did not think this an improvement. While his internment had been a perpetual Lent, he thought the mortifications of his brethren in the West had been sustaining him. In fact, it had been the other way around.

The bishops of Nicaea knew the consequences of mortification, the grief of it when inflicted, and the grace of it when voluntarily assumed. So they extended to 40 days what first had been a penitential period of three days before Easter. The season was catechetical as well as penitential, preparing catechumens for baptism and collaterally instructing all the faithful. Over the years, the nature of the Lenten fasts and penances varied, and not until the seventh century in the West was Ash Wednesday added so that Lent might last the full 40 days if Sundays were exempted. As early as the time of the Council of Nicaea, however, the Church in Jerusalem had kept Lent for eight five-day weeks. The word "Lent" comes from the Old English lencten, after the season of spring with its lengthening daylight. Christians, bringing to fulfillment an instinct of most religions, have known that some period of mortification as a "prayer of the senses" serves as a prelude to a spiritual rebirth.

The second image that comes to mind when I think of Lent is that of the Church of St. George in Velabro along the Roman Forum. Unlike the Church in Jerusalem, whose own altars fasted on the weekdays of Lent by forgoing the liturgy, the Church in Rome celebrated Mass every day of Lent and with special ceremony. At the end of their workday, the faithful would gather around the bishop of Rome and his deacons in procession to a church appointed for the day. The Church of St. George was the station church for the first day after Ash Wednesday, and since St. George is the patron of soldiers, the traditional gospel reading for that Thursday was about the centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant. To that church in the course of his tumultuous pontificate during the eleventh century, Pope Urban II brought a portion of the skull of the great martyr George. Others of his relics are entombed outside what is now the entrance to the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

When I was living in Rome some years ago, it fell to my lot to preach each year at St. George on the Lenten station day, beginning when I was a deacon. By then, George's official status on the Church calendar had been reduced in the neuralgic spirit of the late 1960s, though he continues to be the most honored saint — except for Mary — in many Christian nations. Last year, Pope John Paul II undid the revision of the feast, making St. George's Day a solemnity in such nations as England and India. And of course, like the Nicaean bishops in their endurance, the survivors of Soviet Russia have restored St. George to their banners, and a new Church of St. George the Mega-Martyr shines in the sun across Red Square from the sullen tomb of Lenin the Martyrer. Ostpolitik is gone, and St. George remains.

Lenten Lightweights
All this is by way of saying that Lent is not for the fey. That is because Christianity is not for them either. Sentimentalists who are Catholics on their own jerry-built terms have no place for Lent. Cafeteria Catholicism, their fast-food version of the heavenly banquet, is neither feast nor fast. Its pastiche of Catholicism has become an anthropological vignette whose day is already past. The felt banners and ceramic butterflies that replaced crucifixes in the late 1960s and 1970s are fading away to the land of kitsch — detritus of the liturgical Martha Stewarts of their day. There is even a rumor that genuine observance of Lent is coming back. The anticipatory "gesima" Sundays that preceded Ash Wednesday before the Second Vatican Council, for all their psychological usefulness, unfortunately may have gone the way of all fleshlessness (pray to St. George Redivivus for their return), but at least the sense of Lent perdures.

I live in the middle of Manhattan, where Ash Wednesday is perhaps the most popular religious day of the year, albeit confused with Mardi Gras the day before and being quickly surpassed in popularity by Halloween. Thousands come to the Catholic churches for ashes, many without full knowledge of what the ritual really is but at least palpably aware that we are dust. Even the bulimic syntax of the English translation of the rite cannot rob our sense of mortality of a pathetic majesty. We are an Easter people, and as St. Augustine was wont to say, Alleluia is our song. But without confession of our many morbid betrayals of the living God, the song becomes a ditty, and instead of the scarred bishops calling the people to repentance as at Nicaea, the paschal landscape is festooned with harmless adults dressed as rabbits hiding eggs from bewildered children.

Thomas Merton recalled in The Seven Storey Mountain that before he became a Catholic, his Easter consisted of an abbreviated service of Morning Prayer followed by an egg hunt on a manicured lawn. Such Easters are like the festivals in the twilight of imperial Rome when, as Suetonius records, the great men spoke of the gods but secretly consulted the stars. Some have so lost confidence in the resurrection of Christ that they keep little of Lent at all. There are places where there are Ash Wednesday and Easter and in between an extended St. Patrick's Day. Great Patrick would be the first to cry out against this from the heights of Croagh Patrick, his fasting place for all 40 days.

One could go to the other extreme and think of Easter as merely an interruption of a yearlong Lent. That is the piety of the rigorist for whom every silver lining has a cloud. Worse, there are certain Catholic types with the mottled spiritual complexion of the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal who were "pure as angels and proud as devils." Patrick lit a Paschal fire, not a Lenten fire. All his fasts were for the feast ahead, and he knew that fasting is not only for the self, since in the Christian community one also fasts for the dead. A parable of the Lenten-Easter economy appears in the chronicles of Nennius the Briton and Tírechán the Gael. They wrote separately of how Patrick fasted another 40 days on Mount Aigli near the end of his life:

And the birds were a trouble to him, and he could not see the face of the heavens, the earth or the sea on account of them. God told all the saints of Erin, past, present and future, to come to the summit of that mountain which overlooks all others, and is higher than all the mountains of the West. On that mountain, God commanded the saints to bless the tribes of Erin, so that Patrick might see by anticipation the fruit of his labors, for all the choirs of the saints of Erin came to visit him, who was the father of them all.

First, fast to starve the devil, then feast with the saints.

Fasting, Not Dieting
For a long while, when there was a compact and coherent Christendom, Lent as the "truce of God" was a palpable social fact: Charity was flaunted, wars were suspended, and executions were postponed. This last was not because anyone thought capital punishment was intrinsically evil. It was because the law courts closed for Lent. To meet the Lenten deadline (yes, I said deadline), executions in the Papal States were speeded up to get them over with by Ash Wednesday. The salutary moral effects of the papal executions often brought about a celebratory spirit inconsistent with Lenten sobriety. With a flair alien to the morbidly edifying public posture of contemporary social engineers, the papal executioner sometimes wore a carnival costume. Blessed Pius IX's octogenarian executioner killed 500 criminals during several papal reigns, including Pius's, but Lent was time off for him.

Lent is an occasion of sin, for it is a time when the flesh is made weak. It is the only occasion of sin that one can seek out legitimately. St. John Chrysostom preached: "God does not impede temptations, first, so that you may be convinced of your strength; secondly, that you may be humble, not proud; thirdly, that the devil, who may doubt whether you have really abandoned him, will be certain of that fact; fourthly, so that you may become as strong as iron, understanding the value of the treasures which have been granted to you."

Self-denial can strengthen the self as no glib kind of self-affirmation can. In California, I saw an advertisement for a preparatory school in which the top student in the senior class said that the school had taught her who she was, to feel good about herself, and to be satisfied with her choices. This Valley Girl vacuousness would have driven Socrates to drink a second nightcap. For those three smug confidences run afoul of the classical triad of erudition: Self-knowledge is delusional without perception of eternal beauty; self-contentment eradicates the civilized discontent born of a quest for eternal truth; and satisfaction with one's choices is barbaric if one does not choose eternal good.

These transcendentals prefigure the temptations of Christ. During His 40 days in the wilderness, the prince of lies would have had Him turn stones to bread (nature defined materialistically in contradiction of natural aesthetics and supernatural faith); fly (happiness as vainglory in contradiction of natural wisdom and supernatural hope); and exercise power (morality as artifact of the will in contradiction of natural law and supernatural love). Diabolical deceit accepted instead of rejected now plays out its tragic drama in the wilderness of our schools and other social institutions.

Nonetheless, pilgrim voices still chant as guardian angels descant: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." This cantus firmus of Lent means taking evil seriously enough not to fear it. To neglect evil is to take the self too seriously, which soon makes the self a fearful thing. This is a stubborn canker in spiritual discipline, and it is especially a problem with mortifications such as fasting, which can be self-defeating when done apart from a transcendent love. Fasting and abstinence should be nonchalant, done with panache, for the life of grace is nothing if it is not graceful. "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face" (Matthew 6:17).

We have all had the experience of meeting or knowing people who make a fetish of fasting, even to the length of weighing themselves in the process. With a deluded spirituality, they claim to fast but only diet. The scales of justice are not in the bathroom. Fasting is meant to teach humility: If I cannot do without a few sandwiches, I should speak with reserve about being a soldier of Christ.

Was it not a special favor from God to watch the joint beatification of Pope Pius IX, Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B., third abbot of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium, and Pope John XXIII? It was a happy day for goodly fat people like all three and a day of abasement for aesthetical ascetics in "a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion" who want only gaunt saints on their prayer cards. Enthusiasts who cut down on food principally to improve their tennis game would be less eager to fast if it added weight. In a perversely affluent culture where thinness is an outward sign of wealth, getting fat is not necessarily a way to humility, but it does guarantee humiliation. To paraphrase Chesterton on the angels, the key to heroic virtue may not be in being light but in taking one's self lightly.

Much Communion, Little Confession
The sacramental economy of Lent acquaints earth with heaven without equating them. The 40 days are dialectical (earth separated from heaven) in their stress on dying to the old man and denying the passions, and analogical (earth in consort with heaven) by their focus on eternity. If you can get through the treacle in John Keble's volume of poetry, The Christian Year, you can abide for a while in fine lines like this for Septuagesima Sunday:
The Moon above, the Church below,
Wondrous race they run,
But all their radiance, all their glow,
Each borrows of its Sun.

I am told that in the Eastern rites there is a custom of singing Alleluias quietly as Lent starts to remind the faithful of what the season of fast is all about: "Lord let me know my end and the number of my days." The Western rite's Laetare Sunday in the middle of Lent does something of the same, prompting the faithful to keep an "eschatological perspective" or, more felicitously, to "keep an eye on the prize." Lent is a sublime paradox, weaving the pattern of suffering and joy that is the human condition, mortally tragic for the behaviorist and divinely comic for the graceful.

John Paul II is a case in point. Surely the pope's physical infirmities are a mortification for a man of such spiritual authority. He is the only vicar of the one of whom it was said: He saved others, but Himself He cannot save. The sight of the pope so constrained by his illnesses makes him an icon of Lent, and as he gives his blessing urbi et orbi with trembling hands, he is an icon of Easter at the end of days many more than 40.

The saints have reiterated this: Unsought mortifications are more difficult than self-prescribed ones. Patience with long lines at the supermarket, rock music on public address systems, and the wrong people running things can be harder spiritual trials than fasts and vigils. If 40 days pass with our thinking we have kept a good Lent, we have kept a bad one. That would break the commandment against tempting God. To tempt God is to put His justice to the test by the ridiculous spiritual impertinence that authors of spiritual manuals delicately call "presumption." It is what provoked the biblical imprecations against meretricious rituals and abominable sacrifices.

This is a point that may have eluded a Catholic archbishop in South Africa who, in an earnest effort to make worship more indigenous, recently proposed sacrificing cows for blood libations at Mass. I never expected to have to take up my pen against animal sacrifice, but new occasions teach new duties. The eucharistic sacrifice is different from all the other sacrifices of all the religions that have ever tried to appease heaven. First, it is all-sufficient, so we need not turn the sacristy into a butcher shop. Second, it is rational and therefore inseparable from moral truth. In Romans 12:1, St. Paul declares the Eucharist to be an offering of spirit and mind, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has identified intuitions of this in the ancient Dead Sea and Alexandrian Jewish communities. The moral dimension of the "reasonable sacrifice" (logike latreia) of which Lenten anticipation is a prophecy and an icon, is the reason we call this sort of presumption a bad thing, like praying to God without having first incarnated that prayer in acts of charity, or receiving much communion and confessing little. We may tempt God — that is the tawdriest privilege of a free will — but God is not mocked. Not for long. Presumption has its consequences. Look at the 360 degrees of desolation around us. Look at our parishes. Lent should mean more of both confession and communion, spiritual reading, examination of conscience, benevolent acts, and prayer issuing in resolution.

Much Ash But Many Miracles
Modern man has had a long Lent. You could say it lasted the entire 20th century. Postmodern spiritual fatigue perversely engenders a kind of compensatory hysteria: eclectic revivals of blood sacrifice in sub-Saharan lands and liturgical dancing around altars in suburban America. As a church, we have been mortified: By neglecting the intellectual case against Christ's cultured despisers; by trusting in bureaucracies and utopian movements; by imputing divine inspiration to private conceits; by slothfulness in the face of infanticide; by complacency about hunger and injustice; by grossly exaggerating the value of entertainers and professional athletes while neglecting spiritual heroes; by confusing tradition and nostalgia; by degrading our artistic patrimony; by banality in the pulpits; by scandals and refusing to speak of them as unspeakable; by the consecration of mediocrity; by voting for degenerate Caesars when we had the political power to dethrone them; by contempt for history; by impatience with God's unfathomable patience; by failing to give God thanks for the grace of living in a time of so many saints and miracles — in short, by softness in hard times.

In the same 20th century of so much ash, we have witnessed many miracles, which perhaps only a later generation will recognize as such. Lents come and go, and however we may keep them, there is always Easter at the end. The Lent-Easter cycle has nothing to do with the the change of season from winter to spring, for south of the equator everything is opposite. It has much to do with the rhythms of the body asleep and then awake, and much to do with the course of history with its ups and downs.

I recall a lady who died a few months ago who often rode a bicycle around Rome and unobtrusively attended Mass at our college chapel years ago. Only when I first visited her for dinner did I find out that her home was the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj with its 1,000 rooms, and that she was the Princess Orietta and part of the long Roman memory. A friend wrote after her death that when traveling with her recently on the Via Quattro Novembre, they went over a pothole, and she said, "That hole has been there since the war." Civic intimacy of such charm is born of a profound acquaintance with and an even more profound love of the place where one lives.
Nevertheless, of Rome it has been said that one knows it well after a year and not at all after a lifetime. This is even more true of the mysteries of salvation. Every lapse into sin should remind us of the first pothole in Eden. Lent is a small familiarity with the inexhaustible drama of redemption in which eternity transfigures mortality: "[W]hen I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians). It is a radical break from all other dispensations whose only response to mortality is to ignore it, to flee from it, or to bury it with horrible dirges. We live many Lents during our lives, and we should not make a big burden of them. We should come to know them well and even cherish them, hot cross buns and ashes and all. But when Lent is done, souls attain to the stature of heaven by having measured their own smallness, and they become strong enough to bask in the blaze of glory by sensing their own fragility and turning it into the transparency of grace.

a little fat off my life

Lent came and went somewhat inconsequentially last time round, meaning I was too busy with my life (of what, I can't even recall with clarity) too live it. Neither did I prepare and give its meaning due thought. This time, I told KDM, I want to pay more attention.

Fat Tuesday came and went too, as in, yesterday. Fat Tuesday really wasn't fat, considering nothing is strictly lean any more, not in my life. I tried to think some lean thoughts, but like everything else, the thoughts stubbornly remained flabby, resisting to be gathered.

If there was one thing I learned from last month's travel, it was that I could live with less, wearing the same clothes two to three times a week without running them through the washing machine. In the two and half week period, I did laundry once, in a rundown room at the end of the motel we stayed, after obtaining quarters from a coke machine in the inn's alley. I did it while others were squeezing in a nap between typical tourist expeditions. Having nothing else to wear, I dashed about between my room and the laundry machine in KDM's bathing shorts and his undershirt. Fortunately it was in Key West, where there's no way in hell you can be underdressed.

In the other towns we visited, there was no self laundry service at the hotels. Yeah, hotels, not motels. The price list on the laundry slip in the rooms read like retail store price tags, and I don't mean the Wal-Mart tags like I'm generally used to. Buying new clothes was hardly an option since the two luggages packed with clothes for both winter (for NY) and summer (Key West) and the take-home gifts were already weighing down my outlooks for the taxi rides to-and-fro airports. Being between a rock and a hard place such, I went for simplicity, or duplicity, depending on how you look at it. At night I either folded, or sprayed water on and hang up the clothes we'd worn that day to be worn again the day after. I even did this to KDM's under shirts without rousing suspicion when he put them on again (and you shouldn't either). Gross? No, solution. I'm not sure my fellow greenie human fellows won't approve my ingenuity as progress to saving planet earth.

If I could live the two weeks on the road without compulsively running to the washing machine like the hamster running the laddered wheel, how much does it take to apply the broken habit to my life at home? Important thing is, I found that it was POSSIBLE. If I could live with less clothes, less shopping, I could like wise do with less other things, and this would even mean cutting down preparation time for other things I do. I don't have to have multiple choices BEFORE I embark on something. That means less dependence on my own schemes for security, more room to serendipitous encounters, improvisations, or, even, in grander things, Providence.

Radical trust, childlike dependence, a magnificent heart, are the common traits of the saints. They really do possess no second pair of sandals. Unlike my own resolution which I have broken for a hundred times to "travel light", they did it. My not being able to keep it tells much about how heavy I take myself and possessions, while they take themselves so light that they travel with the angels.

What does all this have to do with Ash Wednesday? Not much, but I hope it's a beginning to my "paying attention" to the beckoning Forty Days ahead.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

churches we visited on January trip

Photos of churches we visited during our trip last month, in reversed chronological order - I simply don't have the patience to wrestle with the blog format to get it right. To make better sense of time and place you'll need to scroll all the way down, then up, as you go, e.g., begin with Saint Joseph Cathedral, Buffalo, at the bottom, the first town of our visit. After it we flew down to Orlando, where we "worshipped" at Walt's Church of the Mouse; we drove to and stayed in Key West and attended Mass at Saint Mary Star of the Sea (name same to the one Webster of YIM Catholic attends in New England, apparently). New York City of the last leg of our trip, where we paid visit to both Saint Pat's and of course, Church of Our Savior, both within walking distance (everywhere is within walking distance for New Yorkers).

One of the several altars inside the Church of Our Savior, NYC. Fr. Rutler is often seen speaking next to this statue of Our Lord. Flanking Him are Sts. Therese and Anthony. I didn't take photos of Fr. Rutler either during Mass or our visit.

Interior of Church of Our Savior, New York City

- It was still dark when we arrived for the 7AM Mass. People seemed to be just dropping in on their way to work. Just look at the icons: I'd seen them a hundred times on EWTN, on Christ in the City, hosted by Fr. Rutler.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

-a short walk from our hotel. I have one word: awesome.

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

- the only church keeping on its property two roosters, which literally crow along side the bells and chants during the Mass: it all seemed perfectly fitting.

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

The day was January 24, two Knights keeping vigil in front of the Memorial of the Unborn

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

Garden featuring the Lourdes Grotto

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West, The Church garden features a walk in the form of a rosary, posts in distance are the Mysteries.

Exterior of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

Interior of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

- one of the most enchanting churches I've ever visited, with half a dozen French doors on either side open to let fresh ocean breeze mix with incense of the mass.
At dawn: Saint Joseph Cathedral, downtown Buffalo, NY

Literally two-minute walk from our hotel. We attended Sunday Mass there, taking all our foreign visitors with us.