I am not a demonstrative person. I have a Grimm dread of making a scene. I am also not much of a feeler. I don’t like to cry in front of people and I’m easily embarrassed.
So it was a serious decision when I resolved to start receiving the Eucharist on the tongue. At some point around Scout or Roo’s births I started, mostly motivated by a sort of obscure horror at what it’s like to receive in the hands while juggling a baby. If we are supposed to be even a little reverent, then jutting out half a hand while wrestling a wiggly baby, like a harried drive-thru customer leaning out the car window for a hamburger, cannot possibly be considered to afford the appropriate reverence.
Still, we were, and to some degree still are, Covid-cautious. (I mean, in my case, kind of cautious across the board.) So for months that became a couple of years, I went back to the practice of my childhood and received the Eucharist in my hand.
But then Teddy got here and Teddy got fractious and I was back where I’d been years ago when I first found myself in this conundrum. And I traded being flustered by my lack of reverence for being flustered receiving the Host on my tongue.
And I am flustered, almost always. I’m flustered when it’s a priest I don’t know. I’m flustered when it’s our friend, Roo’s godfather. I’m preoccupied the Eucharistic minister might accidentally touch my teeth. I’m in dread that somehow I’ll still manage to fumble the transfer. I’m self-conscious as all get out, making this Mass somehow all about me.
But sometimes I get just a snatch of the proper perspective, a whisper of the meaning of what we are all doing. And so I was dazzled recently by a passage the kids and I read in Sun Slower, Sun Faster, by Meriol Trevor.
Let me set the scene for you. Cecil (short for Cecilia) and Rickie have traveled back in time to a Mass performed in secrecy during the Elizabethan persecutions. Cecil, raised in a secular home, observes the priest placing the Host in the mouths of people receiving under the constant threat of discovery and death:
Isn’t that beautiful? I am touched, often, when I pop a chocolate chip or a berry into the delighted mouth of one of my children. There’s just something so trusting about their little sweet mouths, and I’m always transported back to when they were each my own sweet nursling. And that’s what we are, no matter what we pretend, when we receive the Eucharist, and at all other times, too: utterly dependent on the tenderness of God, the “most natural and unnatural” thing in the world.
In the upper-middle class suburban sprawl where J and I grew up, most of the kids at least had access to a car through high school. J and I entered marriage with two cars, but pretty immediately we spent six months in an impoverished corner of Uganda with no car at all, so when we got home and J’s dad talked about how much he’d enjoyed driving J’s little Echo, we sold it to him. (I recognize how privileged this is from a global perspective, but then again, our position was hardly unique.)
In over a decade since that initial decision, we’ve kept just one car, even as we upgraded from my gramps’s Accord to a hatchback, from the hatchback to a minivan. When we went to buy our first home, we intentionally chose one in town, close to campus, allowing J to easily walk or ride his bike to work, and with a park out back so we had plenty of at-home entertainment.
Still, here and there over the years the only way we’ve been able to attend certain things is through the generosity of friends who do own two cars. We would have missed parties and out-of-town events without these other people being willing to give one or the other of us a lift. At least once I would have missed work if a neighbor friend hadn’t loaned me back the Accord we’d sold him. I used to feel guilty because our choice means we rely on others, but then I decided that might actually be a strength.
There have been seasons, when we were low income in grad school, or when I was laid low by pregnancy, when we relied more heavily on others. Sharing a van now helps us maintain that reliance. Just because the system would be much less tenable if everyone we knew dropped down to one vehicle doesn’t mean it’s foolish (or worse, arrogant) of us to do.
Instead, we who are in the rare situation not to have so much vulnerability thrust upon us should look for opportunities to trust. Maybe your exercise in interdependence, in trusting in God’s Providence, is waiting to borrow kid snow gear from friends instead of just buying it, or trusting you can borrow camping supplies from your neighbor. Maybe you do something that terrifies me, like cohousing, or leaving your doors unlocked as a matter of principle, like friends of ours in New England. Maybe it’s as small as building your weekly menu off a farm share or the close out grocery instead of controlling every aspect and getting huffy when the big box store doesn’t carry that one ingredient, in or out of season.
Of course in twelve years of single cardom we’ve quarreled about whose need for the vehicle trumps the other’s. I have no idea if we’ve saved much money than keeping an old second beater, as we’ve spent comfortable spending more on our house location, really good soles for J’s shoes, and (too) many bikes. Certainly we’ve spent more time in the car together so we can drop someone off. (Probably not the worst thing, actually.) Quite possibly we’ve annoyed a person we’ve asked for a ride by our importunate request.
Inter-reliance runs those risks. The fortresses we build ourselves to protect against ever appearing mendicant prevent those risks, but introduce others: loneliness, a lack of resilience and flexibility when disaster and need do inevitably strike. We can pretend toward independence when everything is going well and never ask for any help, believing we never will need it. Or we can take baby steps toward trusting others with our needs, one rideshare at a time.
We all have natural affinities for certain saints. As a mother of three young kids, I’m a big fan of that line St Mother Teresa of Calcutta may or may not have uttered — “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” It’s a cozy idea, and encourages me to embrace my current season of life, to dig deep into the small daily sacrifices required by comfy suburban motherhood, saving the heroics for someone else.
But what about those other saints? The ones we tend to relegate to the cobwebs of our liturgical year? The ones who suggest that sometimes, loving our family is not the highest good?
St. Margaret Clitherow, who is celebrated March 26, is one such of these challenging saints. I came across her on a trip to York, where she lived and died in the sixteenth century, martyred at the age I am now, the mother of as many children.
Her story can be stated in brief. Margaret suffered the misfortune of living during the upheaval as Elizabethan England abandoned Catholicism. There’s a theory that her brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, may have led her into the Catholic faith, but like many present-day former Protestants, Margaret seemed to clutch her faith more dearly than many cradle Catholics. At a time when Catholics would often attend Anglican worship to meet their legal obligations, satisfying themselves with abstaining from communion or just grumbling, Margaret was uncompromising in her refusal to attend Anglican services. Her husband remained Anglican but allowed their children to be raised as Catholics, and so Margaret stubbornly went about her business as a committed recusant, harboring Catholic priests in her home and sending her son abroad for a Catholic education. And, as you’d expect, eventually she got caught.
St. Margaret Clitherow did not hide behind motherhood as an excuse to be careful, but rather raged against the forces of evil, modeling brave faith to her children. She was just a lady with some babies who didn’t think that fact exempted her from standing up to injustice. Members of Margaret’s community repeatedly urged her to change her mind by invoking her duty to her family — one contemporary report states that “others also came to her at divers times, and said she died desperately, and had no care on her husband and children, but would spoil them, and make all people to exclaim against her.”
I can imagine myself arguing the same thing. “Meg,” I’d say. (She’d definitely go by Meg, I’ve decided.) “Isn’t it more important to care for your children? Motherhood is your vocation! God wouldn’t want you to leave them motherless.”
No doubt she’d ignore me, too. And that would be why she’s a saint and I have a long way to go. In 1586 she was arrested and never saw her children again. It’s not that she didn’t think of her family — in fact, by not entering a plea she saved her husband and children from being forced to testify against her. And in prison, where she gave birth to her third child, William, she also learned to read and write so that she might pass on the faith to her children.
It’s true that her actions did ultimately leave Anne, Henry and William without an earthly mother when, that Good Friday, she was martyred horribly by being crushed to death under her own front door. Further increasing the brutality, some accounts report she was pregnant with her fourth child at the time. But in so dying, she gave her children a heavenly mother, and her living sons went on to become priests, her daughter a nun.
It’s easy to idolize family. Though we are called to die to self and love our family, the obligations of small children can sometimes transform into an excuse we hide behind. How many times have I passed up the opportunity for confession or daily Mass because it would inconvenience my children? Personal holiness can be forged through the family but not solely. With what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “Christ-ed beauty of her mind,” Margaret understood this, keeping aflame her unflinching love of the sacraments.
OK, for our next stop on the Obscure Advent Recommendation Tour, let’s visit a slightly less obscure but definitely controversial pick: Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie, Children of Men. Let’s take it as a question and answer:
It’s based on a novel by P.D. James. (Not as good, FIGHT ME.) The premise is that worldwide infertility is creating a world slumping into despair, unrest, and suicide. It’s 2027 (!) and a baby hasn’t been born in eighteen years. When alcoholic everyman Theo Faron is tapped to help on a desperate mission, he’ll brave the dystopian world outside to find hope for himself and the world in what one review aptly calls a Via Dolorosa.
3. That doesn’t sound like an Advent movie.
Ok, friend, that’s not a question. But to answer your non-question, an Anglican priest friend first introduced it to me, actually, as an Advent movie. Even though it’s extremely violent, it has a lot to say about hope and human frailty and the joy a birth can bring. (For instance, this post traces how Theo’s name translates to “God-bearer.) There are a lot of allusions and visual references to the religious themes — though you can also watch it as a film connoisseur (which I am decidedly not) for its famously long and complicated shots.
4. You said it’s violent?
I don’t want to understate this. It’s very hard to watch, but valuable viewing. I mean, I think it still would be. It might be kind of haunting to watch after our pandemic year.
5.How should I pair this?
If you’re watching it with people, be prepared for everyone to sort of stand up dazedly at the end of the viewing and wander away to think through it. Not a cookies-and-cocoa viewing, for sure.
Family-friendly? ONLY LATE TEENS AND UP. This is outside edge of “hard to watch but worth it” for me. (Though I’m a bit of a weeny.)
Where to get it: It looks like you can rent it on Amazon for $3.99; I got a copy from the library without having to deploy interlibrary loan.
Obscurity level: 6/10 — not on a lot of cozy blogger mom lists of Christmas movies, but plenty of other people agree with the Advent take. (There’s a good review here.)
This is it. 2020 is the year Advent wins out against the commercial Christmas we’ve all grown up with, at least for this round. How are we going to gather to rock around the Christmas tree? Is it possible for much of anyone to sing without irony this year:
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings When friends come to call It’s the hap- happiest season of all.
I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams. That’s for sure and certain.
This is the December we hunker down, wipe our calendars clear of social engagements. We don’t need to dodge the December 5 Christmas party, don’t have to explain to well-meaning coworkers that it’s not Christmas yet. Instead, we have no excuse not to dive deep into what patient waiting means, in both the liturgical and communal senses.
In this way, Catholics and other liturgical Christians have an edge over non-liturgical Christians and secular people going in to this strange, strange December. We have, though we may not personally have plumbed its depths, a rich history of stillness, preparation, and patient suffering in our tradition of Advent.
Without the premature feasts of a normal December party season, can we incorporate fasting into our observance of Advent this year, directing our prayers to any one of the facets of suffering we see more clearly in the pandemic-wracked world this year? Can we use time freed from extracurriculars and commutes to adopt a new prayer practice or reading plan? Without the jangle of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” trailing us from our last Target run, can we learn the haunting strains of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?
That doesn’t mean we have to pivot to an Advent all sackcloth and ashes, though. Instead, we can prepare with penitence, yes, but also hope, for the coming of our King. O come, o come Emmanuel. We feel captive this year for sure, trapped in our homes as cold weather and darkness and disease close in. But we must remember that rescue will come, resolving, as best we can, to make [our] house fair as you are able / trim the hearth and set the table.
How do we take the opportunity to critique our usual December flurry, while still preparing steadily for the joy of the 25th? It will take effort and look different for each household. The pensive, hopeful mood of Advent will come easily to many of us this year, but the jubilant mood of Christmastide may require effort without the usual signposts of parties and shopping mall music, family gatherings and perhaps even Mass. Christmas cards will remind those we haven’t seen for months that they are still loved. The intentional introduction of Advent reading, crafting, and baking into our busy rhythm of remote (or home-) schooling will prepare the hearts of our children. The lights we string around our homes will point to the hope in our hearts, glittering through the interminable nights. Can we look to Christians throughout time, from the early church to persecuted Christians in corners of the world today, who cling fast to the truth as the celebrate, hushed and alone, in their own humble way?
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
I’ve been listening through and re-reading Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay “The Work of Local Culture,” which can be read online here or is included in the books The Unsettling of Americaand The World-Ending Fire(and you can listen to both read aloud by Nick Offerman of Ron Swanson fame—!!). It’s a long and far-reaching essay, not all of which I think I’ve fully unpacked, but today I want to turn an eye to Berry’s thoughts on education.
As he plumbs just how far America has wandered from a respect for local culture, Berry notes, “The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance which it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to the future, of the child.” Because my husband teaches at a nominally liberal arts college that frequently advertises its job preparation chops, because I attended an actual liberal arts (Great Books) program, and because we are leaning toward at least some elements of classical education in our homeschool, this is an idea we discuss often in the Bowers household. What’s more, a respect for cultural inheritance goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism, I think — Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” and all that. Though our children may find themselves alone temporally in a cohort where no one else adheres to their faith, they can, with a proper education, remember all those who came before them as practitioners in the faith: Charlemagne and Gregor Mendel, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Beethoven. (It is worth noting here that Berry is at least partially — maybe predominantly — referring to passing on a “cultural inheritance” that is inextricably local. And I have no idea how to pass that on, having transplanted myself hundreds of miles from the [suburban] woods I walked as a child.)
Berry points out the value-neutral methods of education currently employed, an atmosphere in which the greatest good is not human flourishing or the care of a place or community, but rather to “earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.” It’s the whole marrying-for-money-and-career-prep argument all over again.
The educational system as it exists now is designed so that parents may
“find themselves immediately separated from their children, and made useless to them, by the intervention of new educational techniques, technologies, methods and languages. School systems innovate as compulsively and eagerly as factories. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, ‘educators’ tend to look upon the parents as a bad influence, and wish to take the children away from home as early as possible.”
This alienation is often introduced with good intentions — to break the cycle of poverty, to equip a child with better opportunities. But the separation is also an expression of our cultural obsession with what is new and hip, in this case the newest pedagogical tricks or newest technology. Every child a laptop! we decree, as if concrete improvements have been documented. Instead, what is needed is this:
“There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and community. Without this love, education is only the importation into a local community of centrally prescribed ‘career preparation’ designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.”
Let me offer the disclaimer that these values of course are not unique to homeschool or embodied in every homeschooling family. But the values do require a knowledge of this particular child, of what will be demanded by him by a local community — which often has less to do with skill mastery and more to do with how he understands his place in the world, how she cares for the lives with which she’s entrusted.
The past year should show us what is really important in education and family life. By now we should realize we cannot prepare our children completely for an unpredictable world, because who among us predicted this? What we have learned to value, instead, is the strength of family affections that, depending on their presence or absence, have made the last few months tolerable or miserable. We cannot educate our kids into safety, but we can love them and equip them to love others through the storm.
I recently read (and loved!) Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, which, among many, many other things, chronicles the British World War II experience. At one point the protagonist, Ursula, reflects, “It was the enormity of war…it sent you scrabbling for ways to think about it.” The passage struck me, because I realize I’ve spent the last six months trying to frame the pandemic in the same way, trying out different puzzle pieces, standing back and looking critically, grasping to understand my role in all of this. So here are a few of the analogies with which I’ve been scrabbling:
The Different Paths of the Saints
In this season of tumult and danger, you may find your family called to keep close to home, to sacrifice the pleasures of a life in the world for the safety of a life confined to home. We can look to our faith for a guide — for every St. Teresa of Calcutta, out in the streets effecting change, there is a St. Thérèse of Lisieux, changing hearts from within her enclosure. I am willing to accept that as the body of Christ, we have different roles to play. Priests have sacraments to administer, trained medical workers have healing to offer, but I’m not convinced people in every situation have much to offer in-person that offsets the complications their mingling entails. In this situation, sometimes the best you can contribute to the heroism of others is to get out of the way.
The Longing for a United Front
Early in the pandemic, I found the London Blitz a really compelling and inspiring analogy, with its rich mood of pitching in, planting gardens, volunteering and keeping each other safe — the sort of public spiritedness that fueled us through the spring and early summer. Now, I find the comparison less helpful, because for those of us still mostly at home, the work is so invisible, that it can seem like you’re all alone, because your path is by default a quiet one. You see the friends posting splashy pictures of their adventurous outings, but you rarely see when someone is still quietly plugging away at home. But we are out here — or rather, not out there, but still mostly shuttered up at home.
The Risk Budget
I came across this analogy first articulated in a New York Times opinion piece I can’t find now (of course!), but the Washington Post has a similar introduction to the concept. While the term was new, the idea was familiar to me because I’ve been operating under the idea of Pregnancy Danger Points for some time now. The concept of a risk budget, when applied to pregnancy, goes something like this: maybe a pregnant woman chooses an epidural or anti-nausea medication or SSRIs or lots of air travel or an occasional glass of wine or sushi or lunch meat or…, but probably she doesn’t choose all of them in large quantities because each one is another risk she’s assuming. And while it’s not like at the midwife you’re doled out, say, 37 Pregnancy Danger Points to use before your next appointment, there is some sense that each risk you choose should make each other risk a little harder to justify.
So, it’s similar with coronavirus. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, as in, my kids are in the classroom now so WHO EVEN CARES we should just live our lives normally because it’s easier not to seriously entertain the idea that our choices put us and others in danger. But it is a proposition where each family may determine a different sized risk budget, based on things like whether they have an immunocompromised family member. And in determining that risk budget, each family will certainly make different decisions on how to spend theirs. For instance: to me, organized sports right now are just an unbelievably dumb risk. But guess what! I am sports-illiterate at the best of times, so obviously that wouldn’t be a priority for me. On the other hand, because my husband is working from home this semester and my kids are already homeschooled, I may be comfortable with our kids seeing grandparents after an appropriate quarantine, while this may be too big a risk for you, if you must spend much of your risk budget on exposures for education or career.
Being the Coronavirus Designated Driver
Staying home increasingly feels like being the designated driver at the party as everyone else gets hilariously drunk and you grow both worried and impatient. It’s not a fun place to be, in high school or now, to feel cast in the role of disapproving stick-in-the-mud, raining on everyone’s parade. There are no breathalyzers for this pandemic, no hard and fast way to determine what is safe behavior and what is sheer recklessness. If you choose a different, more cautious line than your friends — well, like the friends you still talk to from high school, they’re going to still be your friends on the other side of this even if they are comfortable with a bit more risk. Wherever you fall on the risk spectrum, it is certain we all need to offer each other even more grace than usual as we navigate these unusual times.
And here’s the thing about being a designated driver. Even if I’m the only one (and I’m not, of course, by a long shot), even if none of the drinkers are impressed or grateful about me sitting this one out — or even if the the drinkers really aren’t dangerously drunk after all — I’m still helping. Maybe you’re still helping, too. You’re one fewer person who might infect my granny, one fewer person who might need a hospital bed right when that essential worker falls too ill to recover at home. It’s true — maybe we’ll all look back and laugh at people like me, and maybe my kids will be bitter about that year of missed co-op and I’ll carry my Quarantimes jaw pain flareup straight into our recovered world, all for nothing. But it’s important to me to be able to look back on this strange, hard time and know I was trying my very best — just as I’m sure it is for you, too.
What analogies have you found most helpful for understanding the pandemic?
With a mix of embarrassment and defiance, I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of days explaining my family’s response to Covid-19. For starters, let’s all agree right now that it’s foolish and dangerous to dismiss this as “just like the flu.” A video by Nassim Taleb, a statistician who studies probability and randomness, points out that it’s wise to prepare and take serious steps now (he even uses the term “panic”) than to wait until the spread becomes overwhelming. The death rate isn’t static — if the disease moves rapidly while we maintain an illusory “business as usual” stance, those who are made seriously ill by the outbreak will overwhelm the medical infrastructure, resulting in unnecessary deaths.
So it doesn’t matter if you, like me and my household, are unlikely to be made severely ill by coronavirus. As I explained to my children, the worst case scenario for our immediate family is just a couple rocky weeks while Mama and Papa have flu symptoms and the kids watch a lot of TV. If we were the only part of this equation, we’d still be bopping about living our normal lives. But, as John Donne’s reminder rings over the centuries, no man is an island, and if we proceed as usual, we will be five more people potentially shedding contagion and risking infecting those around us who can’t handle the disease as well.
“Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind. We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.”
God does not always give us the Lent we chose. (I’ve spent two of them cripplingly morning sick, and one increasingly homesick to end my stint in Uganda. I’m sure you’ve had ones, too, where your plans flew out the window for whatever reason.) He may be calling many of us to offer up things we’d never considered: play dates and church socials, vacations and library runs. Over at Under Thy Roof, Kirby gives us a quick walkthrough of the social distancing measures that led to the canceling of Mass in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, as well as during the Ebola outbreak in west Africa several years ago, lest all the US ends up having to go the way of Italy and now Seattle and Kentucky.
Review the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. (I’ll wait.) Could your Lent this year, like ours, involve dropping off a meal for quarantined families? (Visiting the sick, feeding the hungry) Could you call or FaceTime your aging family members? (Comfort the afflicted) Can you give up the entertainment of going to concerts, movie theaters, restaurants and sporting events and donate the money you save to a relief effort? (Shelter the homeless) The Atlantic piece cited above urges, “[A]nyone in a position of power or authority, instead of downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus, should ask people to stay away from public places, cancel big gatherings, and restrict most forms of nonessential travel” — a currently unpopular stance that could give us ample opportunity to bear patiently those who wrong us. And surely, surely we all must double down on our efforts to pray for the living and the dead.
Because my husband’s teaching at the local college has been moved online for the next several weeks and I homeschool, we are prime candidates for taking a step back from society. Our outings are mostly wants, not needs, unlike so many whose work still demands them leave the house. And so we can sacrifice those outings for the safety of others and take what we’re calling a “prolonged snow day approach”: walks and gardening, lots of books and snuggles inside, more than usual TV, but a comforting adherence to our basic schedule. We can treat grocery shopping as a game of musical chairs — trying to keep our pantries and fridge at around 90% in preparation for when the music stops and staying entirely at home becomes absolutely essential for nearly everyone.
Because I think the music will stop, and soon, for a little while. (Epidemiologists suspect eight weeks might be required to contain the pandemic.) And when the music starts back up and we assess the damages, I don’t want to suspect I took unnecessary risks and endangered the people I love. To the best of my very limited powers, I’m going to try to ensure that this Easter is an especially Eastery Easter, when we can give thanks for rebirth and reunite with those we love. And the only way to get there is to embrace the sacrifice of Lent.
If, like me, you’re getting excited for the premiere of A Quiet Place Part II next month, I wrote a little reflection on its predecessor after watching it for the first time this fall.
Look, you probably saw this forever ago, but I finally sat down to A Quiet Place last week after several friends urging that a.) I’d like it and b.) I would probably sleep again, eventually, despite my deep hatred of scary movies. I was, as they’d predicted, blown away, and now you’re going to hear about it. The movie’s premise? Vaguely mantis-like monsters with extreme powers of hearing have killed just about everyone, and one family, now anxiously — and silently — awaiting the birth of a new baby, must figure out a way to survive. [spoilers below]Read More »
It has been a month since we lost our baby. And over these weeks, I’ve watched myself with a sort of odd, detached interest: What does the patient do in grief?
I am 34 years old, and, until this point, I have been mostly untouched by real loss that belongs to me primarily. Does that make sense? I’ve grieved, of course, but mostly by proxy, for the people I love who have lost people they’ve loved, in miscarriage and in life. So I find myself, rather late in life, new to this grief business.Read More »