An Evangelization Wish

I’ve been thinking about books . . . especially children’s books.  Books play a part in informing our minds, developing our thinking and our understanding of the world.This is especially true of books for children and young adults.

Working in a library, I see so many volumes. I used to be an illustrator, and can’t help browsing through the picture book section in particular.  There are so many lovely ones.  Such variety–and sometimes such propaganda, both good and bad.

What I have noticed in children’s literature (and movies, and TV shows)  is a near total lack of any mention of God, of religion, of prayer, especially in more current favorites.  It is just not part of the life of any fictional characters.   Most books simply do not mention or refer to it at all.  (And, sure, there are exceptions.) The God of any religious tradition is simply ignored, as life and adventures go on without any thought of Him.

This has to have a subtle, negative affect on young people, this sidelining of the importance of the spiritual, keeping God entirely off of their radar.  Kids love to read about the lives of other kids, and how they solve problems. Reading about others helps them develop and shape their own lives.  To leave God out of the equation results in secular kids who do not consider Him at all.  It furthers the compartmentalization of religion, and the pressure to have it be totally “private” and with no voice in society.  It undermines the lessons that parents teach their kids about God and spirituality.

Not being a writer, I can fret about this but can do nothing.  My wish is for authors–and screenplay writers–to just include God as a part of life.  I don’t mean I think that everybody should write pious stories of saints, or overtly moralizing tales. Not at all.  Write the story that is in your heart, but casually, simply, occasionally,  have normal kids and families, and superheroes and fantasy characters, in the course of the plot, do something like, say, go to church on Sunday, say a prayer, or celebrate a holy day/season/celebration.  I think that just that simple step would go a long way to teach our children that faith is indeed a part of life.

Just to bring up the possibility is to plant a seed.

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Bringing My Soul out of Hiding

reinkat:

This is a wonderful reflection that really spoke to me this morning, as I prepare to go on retreat.

Originally posted on Living the Reality of Jesus:

I was reflecting today on where I once was in my spiritual walk and where I am at today.  I have so much more peace today then I did.  A peace I prayed for year after year in my life, but always seemed so far away.  I asked myself:

What is different today?

The answer:

My soul is not hiding from God anymore.

You see I tried almost everything.  I read books, I kept a journal, I always compared myself to others, and I prayed every prayer known to man.  I strived always to do better, always seeing my short comings, faults, and sins.  I think honestly and truly, my soul just went into hiding.  I am not saying these things are wrong, they just did nothing for my soul. 

St. Faustina said:

God is all there is for a soul.  (The Diary of St. Faustina)

How I pondered these words…

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Reading “The Plover”

I recently picked up a new novel by Brian Doyle, and enjoyed the lyrical writing so very much.  “The Plover” is like nothing that I have read before, and was an absolute delight.  I recommended it to many friends.  Then I decided to read it again, and saw even more in it the second time around.

On the surface, it is about a man who takes his sturdy little boat out on a solo voyage across the Pacific Ocean, without a definite goal or itinerary in mind.  He ends up picking up an unusual crew, and has many adventures.  As a plot outline, it doesn’t seem too promising, but don’t let this fool you.  It is simply beautifully written, and a joy to read, with far deeper meaning than the bare outline of the plot.

For me, it was a piece of literary mental imagery, offering a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, almost like a sort of iconography in a sense.

I saw Mr. Doyle’s ocean as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God, with all of its unknowable secrets and mystery within a very real presence.  It was filled with life and wonder and unexpected grace.

The boat is named The Plover, and is piloted by a bitter, faithless man determined to live his life alone and unencumbered.  Sailing along without a definite goal, the boat’s occupants become a community unto itself with all sorts of travelers, so close to heaven yet unable to fathom it despite consulting of charts and sharing of acquired knowledge.  It skirted along the outside edge of God’s Kingdom, catching glimpses of beauty and awesomeness, yet mostly remaining outside.

The community onboard was a gathering together of the lost, the angry, the broken, the grieving, the profane, the marginalized, the unnoticed and the outcast, as well as the pure, the loving, and the strong, with every individual having both dark and light within themselves.  There was much joy, song, interaction, kindness and mercy shown.

All of creation was embraced and took part in the voyage.  There was even a prophet of sorts.  Everywhere and every day miracles happen, transformations of the heart and soul occur, and mystery is simply accepted for itself.

I’d love to hear your insights into this book, if you have read it.

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From Fayum Portraits to Holy Icons

It is sometimes said, as a criticism with some hostility, that Christians have appropriated, or even stolen, the timing of many pagan festivals–for example, like Christmas instead of a solstice celebration, or Easter in place of a rite of spring.   Without going into detail about this, I say both “of course” and “so what”.

In every culture, and in every human soul, there is a spiritual longing and striving towards God. We all make use of the physical things of the earth to express ourselves. We are all living on our beautiful planet, and it is not surprising that there are some parallels in choice of how to celebrate, some links through nature, and even similar ways to express our spiritual being, according to our understanding of God.

The same is true in art.  All peoples have found ways to express themselves in art, to create beauty both in functional items and to honor others.  In general, people do not try to reinvent the wheel, they look around and re-interpret what others have done, building on a foundation, adding their own ideas and purposes to create works of originality that are constantly evolving.

The icon is the earliest Christian art.  In seeking create images to express their faith in Jesus, the early Christians naturally turned to the art they were most familiar with, and reworked it.  They adapted it to their own physical appearance, to their own cultural understandings, and also to the local materials and resources that they had to work with.  They certainly were influenced by their neighbors, and found beauty in many forms of art to use as a foundation for their own expression.  Art historians and other scholars sometimes like to point out how derivative the icon is, how it was just borrowed from the pagan world around them. Of course.  And so what.  What the icon became is a totally unique expression of Christianity.

Asian, Egyptian, Roman, and classical Greek art all influenced the development of the Byzantine icon.  It seems that the classical Greek art forms themselves, with their glorification and idealization of the body, were not as inspiring for the new Church.  However, some of the mediums in which they were created were learned and utilized, notably fresco and mosaic, were widely adapted, yet with a new intent.

Jesus heals a bleeding woman-- from Marcellinus-Peter catacomb in Rome

Jesus heals a bleeding woman– from Marcellinus-Peter catacomb in Rome

 

Chinese horse      

The Asian art world, both Near East and Far East, likely inspired the use of iconography’s beautiful calligraphic line, 2-dimensional look, and relatively flat shapes.

St.George and the Dragon: Russian icon        

 

One of the most important influences on the development of the icon were the Fayum images created in Egypt as funeral portraits.  Like the early Christians, these artists were more interested in the spiritual than the physical world.  There are many similarities:  close ups of a face, an idealizing of the subject, the large solemn eyes.

2 soldiers: Fayum 110 AD

2 soldiers: Fayum 110 AD

They were painted in  encaustic, a painting method using colored wax.  Most of the earliest known icons were done the same way, including the oldest icon image of Jesus that has survived till today.

icon of Jesus, Sinai Monastery

icon of Jesus, Sinai Monastery

But the icon was not a mere copy of the Egyptian funeral image. It was carefully thought out, differing in intent and presentation.  New elements were added, each with deep significance for believers. The Fayum portraits were intended to idealize a memory. Highly skilled artists depicted a person’s physical likeness at their most beautiful stage of life.  Like the icon, the Fayum portrait was to call to mind the presence of the deceased, whose spirit was still with the family.

The icon was intended to witness to theology, through the presentation of a “spiritual portrait”–a person transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.  Many iconographers were highly skilled, but that was less important than the deeply spiritual, theologically learned painter’s prayerful witness to the Incarnation, and to the communion of saints, still present to us through love and grace.

The Vladimir Mother of God

The Vladimir Mother of God

As time went on, Church fathers established specific canons for the depiction of Jesus and the saints, and symbolism and richness of meaning were understood by all believers–so much so that the icon is considered the Gospel told in line and color.  These were totally unique concepts, and ways of expression, which have had vast influence on the development of Western Art, including the work of many secular artists of the modern era.

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Sad Changes

I have been reading some of the writings of John Muir, the naturalist, a man who loved the wilderness as much as I do.  I read his journal entries about some of the places that I have been, 150 years after Muir was there.  One such place was California’s Central Valley.

This is what he saw one spring day:

“When California was wild, it was one sweet bee garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean . . . during the months of March,  April, and May, (it) was one smooth, continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step . . .

The radiant, honeyful corollas, touching and overlapping, and rising above one another, glowed in the living light like a sunset sky–one sheet of purple and gold, with the bright Sacramento pouring through the midst of it from the north, the San Joaquin from the south, and their many tributaries sweeping in at right angles from the mountains . . .

Sauntering in any direction, hundreds of these happy sun-plants brushed against my feet at every step, and closed over them as if I were wading in liquid gold.  The air was sweet with fragrance, the larks sang their blessed songs, rising on the wing as I advanced,  . . . while myriads of wild bees stirred the lower air with their monotonous hum–monotonous yet forever fresh and sweet as everyday sunshine . . . small bands of antelopes were almost constantly in sight . . . I drifted toward the north, observing the countless forms of life thronging about me . . .  (John Muir: from The Mountains of California)

This is what I saw last spring, in the same place:

Tumbleweeds and discarded plastic bags blowing up against barbed wire fences.  The smell of chemicals  and exhaust fumes in the air.  Dirty brown air–you couldn’t see the mountains at all.  The ground glittered with broken glass in the dust. Run-down depressed small towns rife with poverty–and big city bedroom communities 2 hours from work.  The meandering rivers channeled in a concrete paths, delivering the lifegiving water to miles of almond groves and other agribusiness crops. The only wildlife an occasional scraggly crow picking through roadside trash.

Sure, there have to be pockets of beauty still surviving here and there, away from the freeway. I have seen such little islands of pristine beauty, where the people have tried to preserve what is left of the natural landscape, the way that God created it for all of His creatures.  But they are dwarfed by the immensity of the changes in that region over the last century.

It makes my heart sad to see the devastation caused by human indifference, exploitation and greed.  I am sure there are better ways to feed the population.  When will we learn to be better stewards of the land?

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Psalm 86

I have found that I enjoy memorizing favorite bits of psalms, so that I will always have them with me for scattered bits of time to seize for a short prayer.  At work, while driving, at any quiet moment during the day when having a prayer book handy just doesn’t happen.  Lately I have been working on Psalm 86, verses 11 through 13.  It starts out like this:

Teach me, Lord, your way

that I may walk in your truth,

single-hearted and revering your name.

I reflected on the first line, and realized that I actually already have been taught God’s way, in the sense that I know the Commandments, have read the Gospels, know the words of Jesus.  I’ve been taught them well.  But at the same time, I absorbed the idea of the importance and primacy, of the intellect and will.  After all, emotions just happen, out of our control, a wash of chemicals in the brain.  It’s what we do about them that counts, the feelings can be disregarded.  That is what I have been told.  But that is not entirely true, at least not for me.

Yes, emotions do just happen, but boy, do they matter in the depth and sincerity of our response and the lovingness in our souls.   Walking in the Lord’s truth is more than just an act of will for me, if I am to be single-hearted, I need to feel it as well.  I suspect that we all do.  For that, I need rely on God’s grace.   It is not my brain that needs to be taught His way, but my heart that needs the teaching and conversion.  For that transformation of my soul, I pray daily, with trust that I am heard.

I will praise you with all my heart, 

glorify your name forever, Lord my God.

Your love for me is great;

you have rescued me from the depths.

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Watching Ants

We went camping this past weekend.  It was wonderful. We gathered dead&down wood for our modest campfires, not only to enjoy in the evening, but also for use as a cooking fire.   Ah, on Bratwurst night, we broke up many sticks, including one particular 2-inch thick stick and laid the pieces in the fire.

And then there was drama . . .

Out of a hole under the bark of one flaming piece of wood, 10 ants emerged.  Big fat black carpenter ants, 3 of them a good half inch long, double the size of the 7 others.  Frantically, they all milled around in a panic.

Well, shoot. We didn’t really want to watch them burn to death in front of us, so I used another stick to push the fiery stick down towards some cool ashes on the edges.  The ants ran in circles, frightened, on the far end of the stick.  One burned his head slightly, running back up towards the flames, then quickly retreating to the relative safety of the far edge. Each ant examined the “precipice” of that far edge–a drop of about 2 inches—a long way for an ant. Each then withdrew, and looked again.  The smaller ants huddled together, peering over the side.  The fire grew bigger, crept down the stick towards them.

Several times a large ant jumped off of the stick, then panicked and clambered back on, covered with ashes, only to face again the smoke and flames. The little ones helped to clean off the ashes from the jumper.  Finally, one by one, the 3 big ones crawled to the edge, leaped off for good, and ran across the still cool ashes there to safety.  Each ran a different direction at a different time.  It was every ant for himself, so to speak.

But the little ones remained clustered together, and ran back and forth as a group.  Finally, they seemed to make a decision.  They went back to the entrance of their former home, and arranged themselves in a circle around the nest opening, heads touching in the center, butts out.  They were prepared to die together.

This was not good.  I didn’t want to watch.  I put a small chunk of wood as a step for them at the end of the stick.  I took a small branch, and hit the burning wood softly, to vibrate it.  The 7 remaining ants immediately backed up and scurried together to the safety end of the stick.  Time was running short.  The ants needed to act soon and seemed to know it. They touched feelers again, then hurled themselves en masse off of the stick to the “step” and finally onto the ashes, a little black herd of ants rushing for safety.  All were saved.

What is the point of this story?  Well, I don’t know actually, but was glad it ended the way it did. It was very interesting to see the different behaviors, and surprising to see how the smaller ants behaved.  It does make me wonder about what the other creatures on the planet know, and how varied is their capacity to communicate, and even perhaps to empathize and think.

What finally happened to those ants?  The smaller ones scurried through the rock fire ring, and went back to the woods together.  The big ones each staked out a separate rock, and evidently deciding that it might be a good place to settle down.  They were still there 2 days later, foraging for crumbs in the daytime, hiding during cooking time, and no doubt enjoying their new warm hideways.

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Boosting Vocations

reinkat:

I totally agree with every word! I am trying to figure out a way to share this with the new pastor who is coming next month . . .

Originally posted on Catholic With A Vengeance +++:

Many people talk about the vocation crisis in the Catholic Church. However, little changes are made in the ministry of local parishes which foster vocational growth. People, in short, fear changes, even if they will bring positive results. It is easier to assume what we’ve been doing for many years is good enough and can’t actually be the root of the problem.

After hearing a visiting priest lament from the pulpit about our shortage of priestly vocations, I approached him and said that the solution was simple. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to hear what it was. This does reveal part of our problem: we spend a lot of time talking about how we don’t have enough vocations and spend not enough time acting to encourage them. Do we not have enough time to sit down, ponder the Church’s future and figure out how to best secure it?

Here is…

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Praying for the Strayed

I have posted before about my hero, St. Monica, who prayed so steadfastly for her rebellious boy.  Things turned out well for them–after a few decades of persistent praying.

I ask her to pray with me for my own sons, who have turned away from their faith in Jesus, and for me, that I might be as persistent in lifting them up to the Lord as she had been.

I pray for my boys daily, always hoping that the Lord will put the right words in my mouth when I speak to them, or send somebody else to cross their path in life and point them back to Him.  Like St. Monica, I hope that I live long enough to see them turn back to the Lord.

In the meantime, I have come upon a few readings that bolstered my own spirits and given me renewed hope that my prayers will be answered.  

The most important have been in scripture–remember the story of the centurion with the sick servant?  Jesus healed the servant, not because the sick man himself was filled with prayer and faith, but because somebody else was.  

And the Canaanite woman who begged the Lord to heal her daughter who was being tormented by demons. The daughter didn’t ask–her mother did.  Jesus healed the child through the faith of her mother.  

I recall also the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his friends, who asked Jesus for healing.  Because of their faith, the man’s sins were forgiven, and he got up and walked home.

Pope Francis, in his first encyclical Lumen Fidei,  had these words to say about our loved ones who strayed from the Church, yet are good people:  “To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith. . . . Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk toward the fullness of love.” (section on Faith and the Search for God)

Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, spoke more specifically on this topic in his chapter 5:

If you are a member of the Body of Christ, when you forgive someone, he or she is forgiven; if you hold someone in love, he or she is held to the Body of Christ. . . If a child or a brother or a sister or a loved one of yours strays from the church in terms of faith practice and morality, as long as you continue to love that person, and hold him or her in union and forgiveness, he or she is touching the hem of the garment, is held to the Body of Christ, and is forgiven by God, irrespective of his or her official external relationship to the church and Christian Morality.  Your touch is Christ’s touch.  When you love someone, unless that someone actively rejects your love and forgiveness, she or he is sustained in salvation.  And this is true even beyond death. . .  your love and forgiveness will continue to bind that person to the Body of Christ and continue to forgive that individual, even after death.”

 And so, with these words and thoughts of encouragement, I continue to pray for all of my family and friends who have strayed away from a relationship with God.  St. Monica, pray for us.

 

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Redwoods and Candles

I read a book recently called The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. It was about the exploration of the canopy level of coastal redwood forests in California.  The book contained lots of natural history, as well as the stories of the people who did the research and exploring.  It was an exciting and inspiring tale–particularly so because the work was not necessarily carried out by experts in the field, but by ordinary people who had a love for those towering ancient trees.  They stumbled along, making discoveries, learning as they went.  Some went on to study science formally and earn advanced degrees–but others remained simply self-taught.  Yet their contributions were valued and accepted with respect.  I loved that they were just regular folks, like you and me, who followed their passion and interests. They were a genuine part of that research community.  Their work was accurate and important.

This is a rarety in our culture.  We are sometimes urged not to research by ourselves but to accept the credentials and words of “experts”.  Outsider’s opinions and theories are often scoffed at.  An example are the official attitudes towards chiropractors or homeopaths versus doctors.  It is also seen in the areas of education, politics, energy resources, and even parenting–parents are advised by psychologists and pediatricians and not encouraged to follow the advice of grandmothers.  No matter the subject, for good or for bad, we look to the experts for answers.

Nobody can know all about everything, of course, and reliance on the guidance of others is necessary, but I think it can also encourage a certain passivity, an apathy, and a lack of engagement.  One could say it encourages laziness–mental and otherwise.  Via the Internet, there is always an expert, lessening the necessity of thinking things out. There is somebody to do that for us–always an expert to rely on, to reassure us and minimize risks.  As I read about this exploration of the redwoods, I thought about the fact that the idea of tromping through a forest and climbing a 300 foot tall tree to answer your own questions just doesn’t occur to people.  Somebody else does it, and you just read about it and nod wisely to yourself.

This applies to our spiritual life as well.  After reading The Wild Trees, I picked up “Lumen Fidei–The Light of Faith“, an encyclical letter begun by Pope Benedict XVI, and finished by Pope Francis. About 1/2 way through, I came upon a section that says, in part ” The word, once accepted, becomes a response . . . which spreads to others and invites them to believe. . . in the same way that, in the Easter liturgy, the light of the paschal candle lights countless other candles.  Faith is passed on, we might say, by contact, from one person to another,  just as one candle is lighted from another.”  (Chapter 3, Section 37)

The image of the paschal candle is a beautiful one, as it truthfully expresses the idea of our Church’s New Evangelization.  It reminded me of The Wild Trees, and my excitement of thinking that ordinary folks–that you and I–could learn, do, contribute.  To be of value in sharing something that we are interested in and love.   Like the Good News of Jesus.  The New Evangelization isn’t something that we can sit back complacently with and watch priests and bishops do. It isn’t just the Pope’s job.  We are all called to explore our own small part, the part that resonates in our hearts.

Social justice.  Theology.  Arts.  Apologetics.  Etc.

Explore your spiritual interests deeply and become part of a community that actively shares the light of Christ.

The role of the laity in the past was passive, but our society now needs something more.  We need to move decisively and act to spread and defend the Gospel today.  Empowered by Vatican II, we can each light our candle and pass the light along to others, as symbolized by the Easter candles.  I think we can start in our own parishes, evangelizing first our fellow Catholics first, with courage and strength, filling all with the light of Christ in order to reach out to others.

 

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