Blessed are the poor?

The young monk wore his rags with greater pride than the pope in Avignon his gilded crown. The Spirituals preached the poverty of Jesus and His Apostles and railed against the wealth of the clergy; but the Lord had blessed not the poor, but the poor in spirit — “Beati pauperes spiritu.” A clever distinction. As Augustine and Aquinas had noted, mere poverty was too easily attained to merit such a prize as Heaven. (p. 25, emphasis added.)

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“But poverty is not merit enough,” Dietrich cautioned Theresia. “Many a gärtner in his hut loves riches more than does a generous and open-handed lord. It is the desire and not the possession that diverts us from the straight path. There is good and ill in any besitting.” Before Joachim could dispute the point, he added, “Ja, the rich man finds it more difficult to see Christ because the glitter of the gold dazzles his eyes; but never forget that it is the man that sins and not the gold.” (p. 45.)

Quotes from Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (New York:Tor, 2006).

OK, so maybe modesty isn’t the right word …

I’ve seen it happen over and over: Someone ventures to say, “Women don’t understand the effect they have on men. If they would only dress more modestly, it would save men a lot of struggling to avoid lustful thoughts. Especially in church, you often wish your eyes were not being drawn like magnets to some attractive young woman in a skin-tight skirt two pews ahead of you, when you’re trying to focus on the liturgy. Why do Christian women uncritically adopt the fashions of the age, and why don’t the clergy ever admonish them against it?”

The response is often along the lines of: “You have no right to put the onus on women to dress in ways that don’t incite lust in yourself. If you have trouble with lust, the onus is on you to change your habits and exercise virtue. Don’t be a ‘helpless victim of your own passions‘ or a ‘pathetic little boy who can’t be expected to avert [y]our eyes and control [y]our thoughts‘.

Besides, “Modesty is not just about hemlines and necklines. Immodesty, essentially, is about calling attention to yourself in ways that ‘undermine your human dignity while objectifying yourself‘. And this can be done in various ways, not always having anything to do with how much skin you show.”

I have received “the scolding” myself, after having brought up this topic in private discussions, and have seen others get publicly flamed over it as well. Basically, you’re a chauvinist pig if you put the burden on women to dress in ways that don’t incite lust in men. Men need to grow up, learn to avert their eyes, suppress their urges, not look upon women as objects.

All true, but beside the point.

The point that I’m making is that women don’t see themselves the way men see them. They are not as sensitive to visual sexual stimuli as men, and therefore not as susceptible to visual sexual temptations. And as a result, Christian women tend to follow the world’s trends in fashion, seemingly uncritically and without hesitation, oblivious to their effect on men. Meanwhile Christian men, who do see women the way men see them, try to help Christian women understand how men see them, in an effort to get them to be a little more circumspect in deciding which worldly fashions they will follow and which they will not.

Granting for the sake of argument that this has little or nothing to do with the virtue of modesty per se, or that this is only a tiny fraction of what is encompassed by modesty, nevertheless I consider it a valid concern on the part of Christian men, on behalf of Christian women.

Granting that most of the burden for avoiding the indulgence of lustful thoughts should and does fall on men — after all it’s their problem — it doesn’t follow that women should not be cautioned to avoid dressing in ways that incite such thoughts in men.

Granting for the sake of argument that Christian men should take responsibility for their own spiritual maturity, and not be mental teenagers their whole lives, getting all excited and giggly every time they see cleavage in public — nevertheless not all men are spiritually mature. Try as they might, a lot of them are still in the process of struggling with these things, and working out the best way to manage them. And worse still — a lot of men DON’T EVEN TRY.

Everyone knows that stealing is wrong, and those who are tempted to steal should work to suppress their temptations. If you leave $100, or $1,000, sitting out in front of me, I won’t take it, whether I’m being watched or not. I’m not desperate for money, and stealing is an easy temptation for me to resist. But not everyone is like me. Some people are desperate for money, and for some it’s a very difficult temptation to resist. Worse still, SOME PEOPLE DON’T EVEN TRY TO RESIST IT.

I’m not saying that you can draw definite lines, consisting of a certain number of centimeters past a certain point, beyond which you are being objectively immodest regardless of the circumstances. I’m not saying that women are responsible for the sins of lust committed by men in their presence, whether they intend to incite lust or not. I’m not saying men are not often immature little beasts who need to practice a little mortification now and again, rather than blaming their weaknesses on women. I’m just saying that women don’t see themselves the way men do, and it seems like it would be good for women to know how men see them, in case they don’t want to be seen that way.

When men get specific about what they would consider “modest” dress, often that’s because it’s impossible to do a mind meld with women to make them see how men perceive them. So instead, they try to take a short cut and explain what, to them, might constitute a temptation, and what would be less likely to. For me personally, it’s what I call the “airspace rule”: Leave a little space for air to circulate between your skin and your clothes. Not necessarily a lot, just enough so that every ridge and dimple isn’t visible through your clothing. I’m not saying you’re a slut if you wear skin-tight pants, I’m just trying to convey that leaving some airspace would make your private parts less of an eye magnet to men, who may either be strugging to resist temptation, or may just be having a bad day, or may not be trying to resist at all, either because they’re not Christian or because they’re not very good Christians.

(Men follow the airspace rule instinctively, which is one of the reasons I’m convinced that women don’t see men the way men see women: In my experience, only 4-5 women out of 100 do NOT wear their pants skin tight, whereas only 4-5 men out of 100 DO wear them that way. I think this is because men know how they look at women who are dressed that way, and for that very reason have an aversion to being looked at that way themselves. Whereas women either have no such aversion, or else they are clueless as to how they are being looked at. Based on conversations with women I know, I believe it’s the latter. I could be wrong, but this is my theory.)

None of this has anything to do with excusing rape, or blaming rape on women. I should hardly have to say this — in fact I resent having to say it, but do so anyway because of the things people will say on the flimsiest of bases: A woman is not to be blamed for rape, no matter what she’s wearing. As I have already admitted in regard to lustful thoughts, like all other sins, they are no one’s fault but the one committing them. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop a lot of women from taking conscious precautions to avoid putting themselves in vulnerable situations. The fact that it’s not your fault, doesn’t mean you want it to happen to you.

I think the same goes for lustful thoughts: They may be the man’s problem and the woman may not be to blame in the slightest. But a Christian woman still might prefer that they not happen in regard to herself, if she can help it.

As long as we both shall live

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly to-day,
Were to change by to-morrow and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will;
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.

Thomas Moore, “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” (1808).

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Christmas, of course, traditionally is not just a day, but a season. It’s only in the modern era, in predominantly Protestant cultures, that it has been reduced to a frenzy of activity culminating on a one-day gift-giving feast followed-up with … nothing. At 12:01 a.m. sharp the local radio station abruptly cuts off the flow of Christmas carols, the store decorations come down and everyone pretends to be glad it’s finally over.

On the Catholic liturgical calendar, the weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent and are a time of preparation for Christ’s coming. The idea being not only to prepare yourself to celebrate Christ’s first coming, but also to get yourself in a state of readiness for his Second Coming, the day and the hour of which are unknown and may come at any time.

The arrival of Christmas, then, marks the end of Advent and the beginning of the next season on the Church calendar, which is the Christmas season.

Although our culture at large seems oblivious to these facts (and why shouldn’t it be?), most people at least are familiar with the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. As a kid this song was very puzzling to me, not only because I couldn’t figure out how you can make a gift of 12 drummers, but also because Christmas, as far as anyone had ever told me, was a day, not twelve days. People would go around singing this song to their heart’s content but apparently clueless as to what it was talking about.

The more curious among us will have discovered, at least in our adulthood, that the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days from Christmas Day, December 25, to the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Upon learning this, my first reaction was, “If only!” For me there has always been such a crash-and-burn after Christmas, such a letdown once the day itself had passed — you spend four weeks preparing for it and then bam! it’s over — that the idea of prolonging it for 11 more days was extremely appealing to me. But how could one do that?

For a few years I did my best to have my own, private little twelve days of Christmas, mainly by stubbornly leaving my lights up and continuing to play Christmas carols in my home and in my car. Meanwhile the neighbors one by one are taking their lights down, such that by Epiphany I’m almost embarrassed to keep turning mine on. And heaven forbid that anyone should catch me actually listening to Christmas music on, say, January 4 or later. How would I explain that?

In more recent years, though, I think my family and I have found the answer: You extend Christmas by celebrating Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated in different ways in different cultures. In some places it’s the traditional day of gift-giving, in commemoration of the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men. Children put their shoes out to be filled with candy or money. There are special feasts and processions. But in my experience, Catholics in the United States just don’t do anything other than attend a Mass specific to the occasion (on the Sunday nearest to January 6).

My family came up with the idea of getting together on the Saturday before the Sunday on which the Church observes Epiphany at Mass (which, this year, is this Sunday, January 5). We have what is basically a second Christmas dinner, albeit not as grand as the first. We will have left the Christmas decorations up, of course, and we play and sing Christmas carols, though we leave out carols of the sillier, i.e. “Jingle Bells” variety.

Since Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men bearing gifts, and Epiphany is the traditional gift-giving day for many Christians, we have made the culmination of our celebration a gift exchange as well. However, since in our culture everyone by this time is pretty much gifted out, we make it a white elephant gift exchange, i.e. the gifts should cost nothing (or very little). There is no pressure to put a lot of thought into it since you don’t know who will end up getting your gift anyway. It’s purely for fun.

And since in between Christmas and Epiphany, we also have our New Year’s celebration — which for us is low-stress, usually involving the local relatives getting together, watching a movie and having a few drinks — what we’ve got now (following Advent) is a nice, week-and-a-half to two-week stretch of Christmas-time, starting with Christmas Day, continuing with New Year’s and culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany.

I find it a wonderful plan for eliminating the post-Christmas-Day letdown. By the end of our Epiphany party I really have had my fill of Christmas, and can take down the tree with a light heart (though we leave our indoor nativity scene up until the following Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is the official close of the season).

epiphany (2)

Does anyone else celebrate Epiphany? How do you do it?

[Credit for the picture goes to this blog.]

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood

“‘The Catholic teaching on marriage is “unlivable,”‘ my friend said. ‘Unlivable’ is one of those words with very elastic meanings. Even situations of martyrdom are, in the Christian sense, livable.”

David Mills, “While We’re At It,” First Things, December 2013, p. 68.

The crucifix is essential

The other day I was talking with a man whose wife died within the past year. She collapsed in January, was eventually diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, and died within six months.

I remarked that it seemed her death had not been a challenge to his faith, as death sometimes is for people, notably C.S. Lewis. He said no, certainly not.

He said that once, his daughter had come home from school upset and angry with God for letting her mom suffer so much without, seemingly, lifting a finger to help. But she later told him that she realized we are here for the purpose of getting to heaven. Why, then, complain when a loved one (as we hope) attains that goal?

He also told me about an old Protestant friend, who for years has been sending reading materials his way, in an effort to get him to reconsider whether his Catholic faith is not just a matter of external actions, of going through the motions without experiencing the power of the Gospel in a real, interior way.

But he said that what Protestants miss, is the crucifix. By this he meant not the ornamental bangle that people wear around their necks, but what it stands for. Christianity, he said, is all about seeing that figure on the cross, and conforming yourself to it.

Life isn’t fair, his daughter had complained. And you know what (he said)? She was right: It’s not fair. And the crucifix is the ultimate illustration of the fact.

Being a Christian is about laying down your life in the face of life’s unfairness, difficulties and sufferings. I’m reminded of this post of Adam Greenwood’s on Junior Ganymede, in which he quotes Dorothy Sayers, speaking of those who “refuse to assent to reality, who rebel against the nature of things and who choose to think that what we at the moment want is the centre of the universe to which everything else ought to accommodate itself”.

This is the opposite of the Cross. These people (and there but for the grace of God…) want reality to be put on the Cross instead of themselves: Let reality suffer and die at the hands of my desires, rather than my desires at the hands of reality. Which is more or less like saying, “Let God be crucified rather than myself.” Adam writes that “This is the ideology of hell….” Precisely so.

The Cross without Christ represents Christianity without suffering. “The suffering has already been done by Christ”, some say. What then does it mean to take up our cross daily? (Mt. 16:24) To die to self and live for Christ (Mk. 8:35; Jn. 12:25), or to be crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20)?

If we are united with Christ, then we are united in his sufferings as well as his glory (Phil. 3:10), and thus in his salvific offering of himself in sacrifice. If we don’t suffer with him, we may not be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17) This is of the essence.

altare-con-angeli

My wife in literature

I was reading along in W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, when suddenly there was a description of my very own wife:

“I do not think she had very good features. They certainly had none of the aristocratic distinction of the great ladies whose photographs were at that time sold in all the shops; they were rather blunt. Her short nose was a little thick, her eyes were smallish, her mouth was large; but her eyes had the blue [brown actually] of cornflowers, and they smiled with her lips, very red and sensual, and her smile was the gayest, the most friendly, the sweetest thing I ever saw. She had by nature a heavy, sullen look, but when she smiled this sullenness became on a sudden infinitely atractive.”  (p. 177)

As Fr. Girardey wrote (as quoted on the excellent blog Saintly Sages), “one of the principal duties of those who are called to the married state is to choose their partner in life in accordance with the laws of God and His Church and the dictates, not of caprice, fashion or passion, but of sound reason enlightened by faith.”

I don’t know how conscious I was of this duty at the time I proposed to my wife. I was a fairly new “revert” at the time, had not been raised in the faith, and was certainly somewhat under the influence of passion. Yet I could not have made a more perfect choice, which therefore can only be ascribed to God’s merciful beneficence. Isn’t there a saying about God watching over fools and little children?

Who can speak of his own humility without losing it?

“And lastly, with regard to the faithful, He says: ‘Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls’ (Matt. 11: 29). Such is this simplicity of His that He alone can speak of His own humility without losing it.”

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Providence (1932), Part II, Section 7.

When I read this it hit me hard: Jesus alone can speak of his own humility without losing it. I’m sure others have noticed this, and I may even have read it before. But things don’t always strike us at one time as they might at another. In any event, how true, and how amazing: Who else can pull off saying, “Learn of me, for I am humble”, and not come across as arrogant and conceited?

What gravity comes through in the scriptures when Christ is portrayed. How much more in person? Is it any wonder that people, upon hearing him speak, were often converted on the spot?