January 31, 2017

A Very Southern Weekend

I'm not from The South, unless you count Southern California (which you can't), but I've been a resident of South Carolina for almost a decade.  It's a place with a culture - which I mostly enjoy from the periphery, not having grown up here.  Just this weekend though, I had peek into an unfamiliar slice of Southern culture, thanks to a visit to my friend Lorraine who lives in Atlanta.

Lorraine isn't a native Southerner herself, unless you count growing up in Florida (which you can't), but she has lived in Atlanta for some years now.  She writes a column for a local Atlanta paper and has authored several books, including a biography of the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor (The Abbess of Andalusia).

She had been invited to speak at a local church.  I had the privilege of accompanying her, since my visit coincided with her Saturday talk.  Her topic was Mother Teresa, so I had that to look forward to, but I didn't realize I was also in for a wonderful dip into a new experience of the South.  The talk took place at a Baptist church for their annual "Ladies Salad Luncheon".

"What's a 'salad luncheon'?" we wondered.  We figured there would be a salad bar and imagined iceberg lettuce, anemic tomato wedges and carrot shavings.  This was not to be!  Thank goodness.

Lorraine knew where the church was because she sang in their Christmas choir concert.  She navigated to the parking lot behind the fellowship hall.  From the moment of our arrival, every face we encountered was not only smiling and welcoming.  I wasn't surprised that they knew Lorraine, but the ladies also greeted me by name.  Lorraine had let them know I would be there.

We entered a sweetly decorated hall, Christian instrumental hymns played in the background as set up Lorraine's books on the assigned table.  Flowers abounded.  The organizers all greeted and made sure everything was ready for their speaker.

Then began the parade of Southern ladies, mostly mature in years, carrying their salad contributions.  The two long buffet tables began to be spread with an impressive variety of salads.  I had underestimated the Baptist Ladies Salad Luncheon.  There were chicken salads, shrimp salads, pasta salads, deviled eggs, cranberry salad and "congealed salads" - of three varieties!  The congealed salads might have been called jello-salads, but here in Atlanta, they were "congeeeeled salad".

It's the sort of thing many people today might eschew, much like fruitcake.  But these sweet, jiggly refreshment reminded me of family favorites that older ladies could be counted on to contribute.  I reveled in the old-world feel.  There were at least four of these and I sampled them all.  Two "lime congealed salad", one orange colored "ambrosia congealed salad", and a delicious pink congealed salad, the name of which I couldn't make out without my glasses.  I was not disappointed that they were all fruity and none contained fish.  I've seen that sort of thing in my mother's very old cook books.

There was even a token green salad, but I skipped over that.  A "Salad Luncheon" - what a marvelous idea!  Perfect afternoon potluck fare.  It's easy to make, transport and serve and provides a huge sampling of flavors.  I'm sold on it!

Of course there was sweet tea to drink, though I opted for the unsweetened, that was relegated to the dark corner.  Of course there was coffee and lemonade as well.  And desserts!  Cherry Cobbler, cookies and other confections and pound cake.

I learned a piece of Southern trivia at the luncheon.  Do you know why Pound Cake has that name?  It was originally made with a pound of everything - a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of eggs and a pound of sugar.  Naturally, it's a Southern thing as well!

Here, for y'all's enjoyment, is a "True Pound Cake" recipe from the website "Our State: Celebrating North Carolina."

True Pound Cake
1 pound butter (4 sticks), softened
1 pound confectioners sugar
1 pound eggs (10 large eggs)
1 pound all purpose or cake flour (3 3/4 cups)
You may also add some vanilla

Beat the butter till light and fluffy.  Gradually add the sugar while mixing.  Add eggs one at a time, beating only briefly for each egg to ensure it incorporates.  [I suppose you could whisk all the eggs together before adding slowly while beating]   Gradually add the flour.  Do not overbeat.  Add flour one cup at a time while mixing.  Fold in the optional vanilla.  Pour the thick batter into a prepared bundt pan.  Eliminate bubbles in the batter by slowly running a rubber spatula through the batter a few times.  Place the pan into a cold oven.  Turn on the heat to 275° F and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours till it tests done.

My instructions are greatly condensed from those on the website.  See the original for the more detailed version!

If the link above does not work, you can go to the following site for the recipe and more: https://www.ourstate.com/true-pound-cake/


January 24, 2017

Contagious Evangelists

There are people who just make the world more pleasant to live in.  I remember one such person from my first year in college.  Her name was Claire Crosetti.  She didn't live in the dorm as I did, but it was a very small college and she came to visit now and then.  Everyone loved her.  Everyone.  I don't even know much about her.  I didn't know her family or where she lived off campus or her major.  And she loved everyone.  She was sweet and cheerful - without being cloying or unnatural.  Claire was contagiously happy.

Well before "random acts of kindness" were a thing, Claire did them.  When crossing the Bay Bridge to The City, she would pay also for the person behind her to give them a pleasant surprise.  She was good, but always up for genuine fun.  She once visited the dorms the night a huge group was leaving for a planned ski trip.  Although the only clothes she had with her were those she was wearing - an angora sweater a string of pearls and pumps (it was the eighties) - we talked her into joining us.

It was a Catholic college and most students were Catholic to some degree or other.  Evangelizing isn't something that happened overtly there, but Claire had a huge impact on my faith.  Naturally full of energy and enthusiasm, she was part of a group leading a retreat.  Since I admired her so much as did many others - not with an awe, but with love - I noticed her faith.  I was already devout in my Faith, but she inspired in me a desire for a strong, joyful, enthusiastic faith.  I don't remember much from the actual retreat.  It was a typical college student led retreat.  But I do remember I prayed in the car on the way there for faith of the kind I saw in Claire.  The kind that leads to doing something about it and affecting those around me.

I can trace back to that prayer a growth in my own spiritual life.  I think of Claire now and then and always with a smile.  I did not know her well enough to keep in touch with her.  I don't know that she would even remember me (but something tells me she would).  But I have been ever grateful that she allowed herself to simply reflect Jesus' love to those around her.  I pray that in some small, way I have done the same for someone, somewhere in the world.

There is a joyful beauty in living your life in such a way that others will become better simply by knowing you.  It can't be done by concentrating on how you are living, but rather on who you are loving.  Love Christ and you become a contagious Christian, without even talking about it.  You may have the greatest impact on those who are watching you when you are completely unaware.

Thanks, Claire - wherever you are!

Beware the Clutter Bullies

You may have heard the one-year rule for thinning out clothes from your closet.  Each year, go through your clothes and if you haven't worn something in one year, get rid of it.  Well, I don't follow that rule.  I have clothes I still love and have been wearing for twenty years!  No kidding!  They may take a few years off, but I come back around to them.  I still regret some of the items I have gotten rid of because of that "rule."  My clothes just go through phases.  The people who do this must like to buy clothes!  Every year.  The guideline I use is, if I hate it give it to someone who will like it better.  If it is totally used up, throw it out.  Imagine what must happen to the clothes people get rid of regularly!  If it was trendy to begin with, no one is going to want it now.  It seems better to me to put the breaks on buying new clothes as often.

Over the past few years I have seen and read many articles, books and blog posts encouraging people to "declutter."  Many of us are attracted to this to some degree.  In our consumer driven world, we do tend to acquire a great many more things than ever before and all these things need somewhere to go.  Advertising presents an enormous push to buy, but I've seen very few commercials for divesting of stuff.  There's just not a lot of money in that.  So, we read these articles and books to help us re-gain control of our acquisitions and the space they share with us.

Some articles are devoted to helping people organize what they have so they can put it (and the space it is taking up) to better use.  Often these are very clever and helpful. Others focus on helping people find good outlets for what they no longer need or want.  Some, though, seem to take the role of berating folks for not being better organized and demanding the purging of all extraneous items in one's home.  These are the clutter bullies.

I have taken them at their word in the past, believing them to be right.  It is a good thing to have an organized and clean home.  It's delightful to have a place for everything and everything in its place.  It would be a dream to have only items I love gracing my space.  But I have finally come to realize that the main thing they have caused to be purged from my home is peace.  I will no longer be pushed around by the clutter bullies!

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the ownership and organization of things.  Every person and family have their own style of living, their own level of comfort with the appearance of their homes, their own needs and level of struggle to achieve these.  They have their own priorities, too.

I'm a big believer that there are different personality types that influence how we take in information and react.  These different types will approach their living space differently.  For some, a sparsely and precisely decorated home is a necessity that comes naturally.  Others prefer a cozy, home filled with cute and sentimental things that create a sense of snug warmth.  The people who tell you you have to declutter to be a civilized human are the kind of personality that strongly prefers that - and believes everyone else should too.  It seems easy for them, because it is easy for them.  For those who are different, it's different.

The clutter bullies may be more likely than others to write a book on decluttering and insist that everyone must do as they do.  They like to be in control.  But it's simply not everyone's style.  If it were, the only home decor store would be Ikea.  But, antique stores abound too.  These are stores that exist because people have hung onto their treasures from the past.  Cultural differences play into this as well.  In Japan and Scandinavia, a clean simple line prevails.  An English cottage might lean more toward small, close rooms with large comfortable furniture and lots of old books.

I am not a champion of materialism and consumerism, but I have decided that the advice to purge my possessions regularly and ruthlessly can be taken with a grain of salt.  If you read something that makes you feel you're doing your life all wrong and you must unload a lifetime of accumulated possessions, take a moment to consider whether this will really benefit you at this stage of your life.

For all of you who feel bossed around by people telling you how tidy and organized your house ought to be, I give you permission to lower your standards.  I do tend to like many things tidy and organized, but there are times when that could be a defect.

For instance, I have always stacked things neatly in my linen closet and fretted when new items, like crib sheets, did not have a clearly defined space.  It finally occurred to me that it's okay to have a messy linen closet.  It does, after all, have a door.  I've noticed other people's in total disarray when we have stayed overnight as they sorted through looking for towels, but it didn't bother me.  I took years to realize I was way too uptight about my own.

Now, I spend way less time organizing all my linens into straight piles - and you wouldn't believe how many more things fit in there!  Which is good, because having kids has given us new, weird categories of things to put away.  The same has occurred in other spaces.  There are times in life when everything fits and times when it doesn't.  When your kids move out you can spend your retirement straightening up.  No need to fret; it's not really that important.

The clutter bullies can be very controlling.  They were probably the kids who made up all the rules that their group of friends had to follow.  But the danger is that it may lead to their house controlling them.  It has to stay organized.  So, a lot of energy and time is put into that activity.  And then it gets messy again because people live there.

Keeping your priorities in proper order should allow you to let go of some smaller worries in favor of a greater work you are accomplishing.  I know a family whose small house and precious time is devoted to educating their many kids.  Their house is cluttered.  Not necessarily a mess, there's just lots and lots of stuff tucked away in nooks and cranny and there's not a lot of clear, open space.  But there's a lot of thinking and learning and living going on and they are a charming family as a result.

They know where to find everything they need.  They hope to move to a larger home someday, but they have these children now and they focus on that.  The family is happy, holy, smart and wise.  They put their energies to use on the truly important; there will be time later for trivialities like decorating.  I'm not saying there's less learning going on in a tidy, well decorated house, but the clutter bullies may not recognize that in some homes it is not a defect, it is the result of prioritizing.  It could represent a sacrificial choice of how they will spend their limited time and space: decluttering or teaching and playing.  Their choice will not go unnoticed by those children.

I'm not advocating for disorder and slovenliness.  I just want to weigh in to the clutter discussion and give you permission to disregard any advice on housekeeping that makes you feel like a loser and does not bring you peace when you follow it.  There are different styles and different seasons of life for holding your expectations high and for giving yourself a lot more slack.  If you simply can't think unless your house is clean and you're good at throwing things out, good for you.  I pray if you have children that you are blessed with kids who have a similar personality (or there's going to be trouble for someone!).  If you're determined to declutter and organize, there are many, many resources out there, so find one that is encouraging for you that doesn't make you feel inadequate and then go at it at your own pace.

January 9, 2017

Do You Have Cake on Your Name Day?

Do you know any saints?  Most people have at least heard of St. Patrick, St. Francis and St. Peter.  Do you celebrate the feast days of any saints?  The Church gives us a wealth of feasts to help us follow Our Lord more faithfully - and enjoy doing it.

Americans are keen on observing St. Patrick's Day - as an Irish heritage celebration for Catholics, Protestants and Secularists alike.  A taste for green beer or corned beef and cabbage seems the only qualification.  St. Francis is the go-to protector of animals and outdoor things for nature lovers.  St. Peter stands at the pearly gates in many a heavenly joke.  Even St. Valentine is celebrated with chocolates and roses every February.  But many have forgotten the saint at the center of the feast since even his sanctified credential has been dropped from the day's name as it's now just called Valentine's Day.

But, did you know there are many, many more saints to celebrate throughout the year?  The average Catholic is also familiar with St. Anthony for helping find lost objects.  St. Joan of Arc is a figure commonly known on account of leading France's army to victory.  People associate St. George with slaying a dragon.  St. Joseph is the foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary, but he'll also help you sell your house.  Most Catholics have a few other favorite saints, too.

But wait!  There's more!  Heaven is filled with friends and helpers that the Church gives us as examples of heroicaly loving God and living an abundant life.  Each day of the year there is at least one saint commemorated.  How can we take advantage of this wealth of holy friendships?

Allow me to acquaint you with more of your heavenly brethren.

Read Lives of Saints

If you feel you are a stranger among the great cloud of witnesses that is the mystical body of Christ, you need to get to know a few more saints.  Whenever I have read about saints I feel as though they have become my friends.  Pick up a book about various saints or about one in particular.  Often you will get a very engaging biography from books geared toward young readers.  As you gain more interest in certain saints, you may wish to move on to a full length biography and their own writings.

Mary Fabyan Wyndeatt has written many books on the lives of various saints that are perfect for reading to young children, for independent reading by older children and even for the enjoyment of adults.  These and many others can be found at the Tan Books website.

Liturgical Calendar

By attending weekday Mass regularly or periodically, you can hear of the saint celebrated on that day.  There is a special Mass for many of them!  This is not only a great way to learn about different saints, but the best way to celebrate their feast days as well.  In the Mass you join in the heavenly banquet where these saints are feasting at the very same table!

You can find out about their feast days even before you get to Mass.  Friends of mine like these apps for a calendar of saints' feasts: Saint A Day and Laudate.  If you prefer a more hands on tool, you may like Magnificat magazine. It contains the readings for daily masses as well as meditations and other prayers.

Meet Your Patron Saint
Celebrate the name days in your family.  Do you know when your name day is?  First figure out who your patron saint is if you don't already know.  What is your name (first and middle)?  A great many names have more than one saint to choose from as patron.  Ask your parents which saint they had in mind when they named you.  If they are not available to ask, learn about a few of the saints with your name (or a variation of it) and select the one you most feel drawn to.

Discover Your Name Day
In Christian cultures, a person's first name used to be referred to as their "Christian name" because it was the name given them at their baptism, when they became a Christian.  It was always the name of a saint, but this practice is not always followed these days.  If you have a name for which there is not yet a patron, you could find a saint with a similar name.  Be sure to become a saint yourself, so there will be a saint with your name for future generations!

If you have received the Sacrament of Confirmation, you selected a saint whose name you took as your own, so this saint is also your name saint.  With a quick Google search you can learn the feast day of your patron saint.  This is your name day - a day you can celebrate!  Find out the Name Days of all your family members and god children and celebrate these feasts with special prayers and treats!

One website where you can look up your saints with your name is Catholic.org.

Regional Saints
In addition to your name saint, you can tap into saints' feasts that are specially celebrated where you live.  Many countries and cultures have a devotion to certain saints that are observed with traditional practices.  If you are part of an Italian community, you probably already have a feast for St. Joseph's Day (March 19).  Each country has a patron saint.  Wales has St. David, Scotland has St. Andrew, Russia has St. Nicholas and Peru has St. Rose of Lima.  Some countries' patron saints were natives of that land (like St. Charles Lwanga of Uganda and St. Catherine of Siena), while some are known for bringing the Christian Faith to the place (St. Peter Chanel to Oceana and St. Patrick to Ireland).  Learn who is patron to your people and add them to your domestic liturgical celebrations.

Special Patrons

Did you know there are saints for nearly every occasion?  Either from what they did in life or miracles wrought through their intercession after their death, saints have developed reputations for specializing in certain cases.  Do you need a saint to pray with you for safe travels?   Look up "Patron saint for travelers" in a search engine.  Not only will the old standby, St. Christopher, come up, so will St. Bridget of Ireland and St. Joseph of Cupertino.  You can then read why.  Do you work as a nurse, a lawyer, a mother, a student or any other kind of job?  There's a patron saint for that!  St. Agatha of Sicily, St. Thomas More, St. Anne and St. Thomas Aquinas, respectively, are just some of those who specialize in these jobs.

Ways to Celebrate

By now you see how easy it is to add to your circle of heavenly friends.  Next, see how you might celebrate your relationship with them!

Of course you can ask their prayers regularly and attend Mass on their feast days.  You might want to ask the intercession of a saint by praying a Novena that will end on their feast day.

St. Lawrence being grilled
Look into whether there are any traditional practices associated with your favorite saints.  On St. Lucy's day (December 13), for example, it is a Swedish custom for the eldest daughter in the family to don a white dress and, wearing a wreath of candles on her head, serve an early breakfast to the family.  In Hungary, on her feast, wheat is planted in pots to put near the nativity scene.

There are often desserts and other dishes that are traditional in the celebrations of saints.  You can make up your own, too.  I know people who grill out on the feast of St. Lawrence, who was martyred by being burned over a fire.  He kept his humor till the end, saying from the grill, "You can turn me over now, this side is done."  For the feast of the Guardian Angels you might serve angel food cake!  Cooking With the Saints (Ignatius Press) is a lovely cook book with recipes for traditional dishes to celebrate

Make a pilgrimage to a local (or distant) shrine dedicated to a saint.  Here is just one website you can use to find shrines in your state: Catholic Shrines USA.  There are many others, too.

For the Name Day of someone in your family, treat it like a second birthday; have cake!  Be sure to also remember the Name Day of your godchildren and those you have sponsored for Confirmation! Invite over some Catholic friends (especially if they share the same patron saint) give a gift relating to the saint - a book, holy card, religious medal.  Best of all, have a Mass said for their intentions.

Get to know your friends the saints and liven up both your faith and your year with the many feasts you will bring into your family.  The Church gives us so many to celebrate and to celebrate with!

January 7, 2017

Luck, Serendipity and Blessings

Sometimes I encounter something wonderful just accidentally and I think "That sure was lucky!"  For instance, I might happen to glimpse a gorgeous sunset only because I had to wait for the last wayward chicken to finally make her way into the coop.  Or, I might have arrived at a bakery  just as they take something scrumptious out of the oven, piping hot and delicious.  I'd say I was lucky!

It has happened more than once when I have said this, that someone has "corrected" me by saying "You were blessed."  This is a comment I find more than just annoying.  It's true that I was and am blessed - because God loves me and blesses me, not for any merit of my own, but because it is in His nature.  It seems to me that insisting that these things are not lucky occurrences but blessings shows a bit of misunderstanding about who God is and what His blessing does for us.

It suggests that God is "up there" looking for ways to reward nice people with pleasant things because they believe in Him.  And it suggests that He does not bless those who are less good.  This is a gross misunderstanding of God's nature.  Our purpose in life is to know, love and serve God in this life that we may be happy with him forever in the next, not to believe in God's goodness in order to have nice things happen to us.  I say some correcting of this misperception could be considered a spiritual work of mercy on my part!  It is in that spirit I will continue my harangue.

"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son." John 3:16

God loves all His people.  He loves every person He has ever created - whether they know Him or not, whether they live according to His principles or not.  He even loves the ones who have given themselves over to evil.  Even people we think we're better than.  He loves us all before we are good.  That a person exists shows that God is, at every moment, blessing him or her.  He loves each of us into existence every instant.

I have also observed that sometimes God's blessings are, shall we say, unpleasant to experience.  Remember when you prayed to become more patient and God gave you an opportunity to exercise greater patience in order to grow in this virtue?  Well, that miserable opportunity was a blessing.  But probably no one said "Wow!  You sure are blessed!"  Probably you didn't think, "Boy am I lucky!"  In fact, you were not lucky, but you were blessed.

There is not a power or force called "Luck" that affects peoples' lives.  On the contrary!  When I say, "You're lucky," I mean that something nice happened for you that doesn't happen for everyone.  Luck is when God's blessings for you happen to be things you like and enjoy while they're happening.  Another word that works is "serendipity."

"Blessed are they who mourn."
This distinction is more important than you may think.  If you insist that every good thing that happens is a visual sign of God blessing you for your faith in Him or your virtue or whatever, it can be very easy to slip into thinking God works on a system of rewarding good people who please Him and punishing those bad people who don't please Him.

Well, all it takes is a look into the life of any canonized saint to see that the holiest people generally aren't the people who have the most nice things happen to them.  Sure, there are some holy people who happen to have lovely lives - but they are the exception.  They are lucky!  And I challenge you to show me a canonized saint who did not experience suffering and, in fact, receive it as a blessing.

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9)

This we see in the life of St. Paul.  "And to keep me from being elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated." (2 Cor 12:7)  We see that the "thorn," was unpleasant and was allowed by God to afflict St. Paul.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "But even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses.  Thus St. Paul must learn from the Lord that "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,' and that the sufferings to be endured can mean that 'in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church.'" (1508).       

"God is love." 1 Jn 4:8

God's blessings are not always what we want or pray for, but they're always for our good.  We know this because we know God.  We know that He is all that is good.  "'God is Love' and love is his first gift, containing all others.  'God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.' (Rom 5:5)" (CCC 733).

"Job's Tormentors" Blake 1793
I have no idea why God gives some people nice blessings and others blessings that they may actually have prayed to avoid.  It's not my business to know why.  It's enough for me to trust on my knowledge of who God is and that He knows what He's about.  Remember the story of Job?  If you don't know it, read the Book of Job in the Old Testament.  He endured great suffering of every kind.  His friends suggested that it must be because of his sins that God had afflicted him.  They probably went around telling people who said, "Boy, am I lucky!!!!", "No, you're blessed."

Luck is just the word we use for when pleasant and unexpected things happen.  God blesses us all because He is love - but we will never fully understand what He's up to besides that it is good.

"Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: 'If you understood him, it would not be God' 

(St. Augustine, Sermo 52, 6, 16: PL 38:360 and Sermo 117, 3,5: PL 38, 663. quoted in CCC 230)