Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 2

Finally, I am ready to go back and do part 2 of the post on the Sigrid Undset books I was reading back in January! Whew, that took a while (and I'm mortified to see that at the end of the post I promised to follow up in "a day or two.") So, the second book was actually a new one: Undset's hagiography of St. Catherine of Siena, which has recently been republished by Ignatius Press.

I didn't know much about St. Catherine of Siena before I read this book. I purchased it mainly for Undset's writing, which I already know and love. I knew Catherine mainly as the holy woman who convinced the Pope to return from his exile in Avignon, but that was pretty much it. I can be slack with my spiritual reading, taking several months to read one book. However, Undset's writing style worked its magic and I practically devoured this book, finishing it in two or three days.

Undset not only tells us about Catherine's life, but paints a vivid picture of life in 14th-century Tuscany. With her usual knack for historical detail, she tells us of the political situation of Italy and the Papal States during Catherine's life, and explains the reasons for the exile to Avignon - basically there were a lot of political games being played between the French and the Italian cardinals, and the French really wanted the temporal power that comes with having control over the papacy. The Italian cardinals were definitely biased towards selecting Italian popes, true - but Undset reveals the reasons for that bias by explaining to us how a non-Italian pope complicated the situation in the Papal States. Non-Italians were less interested in the welfare of the people, seeking mainly to plunder the papal possessions in the name of their country. The historical background is very important for understanding Catherine's life and Undset certainly treats it with all due diligence.

I had always assumed that Catherine of Siena was a nun (most medieval women saints seem to be either nuns or queens), but actually, she was a Third Order Dominican. As a young woman she joined an order of Dominican tertiaries in Siena, mostly widows who lived at home. I was surprised that she chose this route rather than that of a cloistered nun - but obviously God had His reasons for keeping Catherine out of the cloister. Catherine was also from a distinctly middle-class background, in a time when many religious leaders were of the noble class. Her father was a cloth dyer in Siena and her brothers also worked in that trade. She was not highly educated, either - she learned to read and write as an adult, and these abilities came to her almost as a miraculous blessing.

The other really striking thing about Catherine, to me anyway, was her ability to form deep spiritual friendships with men. The young men of Siena seemed to be really drawn to her - she was able to act as a spiritual guide and lead them out of lives of wantonness. Undset described how young men would enter her home, angry that she was converting their best "drinking buddies," and leave converted themselves. These young men often addressed Catherine as "Mamma" emphasizing her role as spiritual mother. In an unusual role reversal, her confessor, Raimondo of Capua, came to regard her as his spiritual guide. He could perceive that Catherine had been given graces far beyond anything he himself would have. Catherine shows that real feminine virtue is attractive to men; men want to have something to aspire to, a woman whom they can look up to as an ideal. Something to remember in our modern times, when the goal for "real women" seems to be to act like rough, crude men. The best in womanhood - graciousness, firmness, chastity - calls out to the best in manhood - courageousness, chivalry, and purity.

I would recommend this biography to anyone wishing to learn more about Catherine of Siena, or about the "Babylonian exile" of the Papacy to Avignon. Catherine is truly an example of God using the weak of the world to shame the strong. She was a woman, in a time when women were not regarded as equal to men; of humble origins, in a time when noble blood mattered most. Yet because of the extraordinary graces given to her by God she was able to admonish and guide kings and Popes, and to accomplish God's will on earth.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Edith Stein Conference, Part 2

My nerves were a bit on edge as I settled in with my knitting. (I find I do a better job of staying attentive and alert when I knit, and I'm able to follow and understand while doing so, so I brought a project to work on during ESC.) Ms. Selmys began by saying that she had prepared a talk, but would diverge from her prepared remarks slightly to address some of the accusations made against her by the protesters; namely, that she was an "ex-gay" who believed homosexuality is a disease. She countered this accusation and the others calmly and effectively, and, to my great relief, a respectful attentiveness was maintained by all in the auditorium.

As a result of the semi-ad-libbed nature of the talk, it was a bit rough around the edges, but I found her talk to be compelling in spite of some verbal hesitations. I didn't expect to come to the talk and be forced to take a long, uncomfortable look at myself, but I definitely did. She spoke about the fact that most gay and lesbian people feel themselves to be outcasts and misfits, and that the gay community provides a very welcoming place for them. In contrast, it is easy for gays and lesbians to feel like they aren't part of the Catholic community. If they decide to convert to Catholicism, it is extremely hard for them to cut those ties with the gay community, because they were accepted there when no one else would accept them. She pointed out that the Church's teaching has nothing of prejudice or bigotry about it, but that individual Catholics can sometimes be guilty of both. We emphasize that we "hate the sin, but love the sinner," but it often comes out as hating the sin with particular fervor, but loving the sinner vaguely and abstractly. This was the take-home message for me. If we want to win people to Christ and the Church, we have to love them as individuals, and love with no reservations. Only then will we be able to preach the Gospel effectively.

Ms. Selmys noted that the tendency among Catholics is to view people with homosexual inclinations as enemies in the "culture war", when they are not enemies, but children of God. Ouch. That hit home uncomfortably for me. I thought back to my blog posts, and to my own "knee-jerk response" (she used this exact phrase) to the protesting students outside. I've grown to have an affection for Notre Dame, and I've become aware that there's something special here that should be protected. When I percieve people as trying to hack at the roots of Notre Dame's Catholic-ness, I get defensive and, you guessed it, I start to think of them as enemies. This has come through in every. single. post. I've made on this issue. And it isn't nice. Ouch again. I don't know any openly gay people personally, but if I do encounter any, I am now aware of what could keep me from loving them as Christ does, and that will help immensely. I felt Ms. Selmys could make these points with an effectiveness that few others could, because of her perspective from both sides of the issue. I'm really glad that the organizers of the ESC were able to bring her here.

Ms. Selmys' talk was followed up by a panel discussion, consisting of herself, a representative of the Diocesan Office of Family Life, and Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, Dean of the College of Engineering. They discussed a document by the USCCB about the Church's teaching on homosexuality, then opened the floor to questions. The first questioner was particularly strident, accusing Notre Dame of promoting Catholic identity while denying homosexual students their own identity. (My friend told me she was a literature professor. It speaks volumes about ND that departments feel free to hire someone with such obvious animus against Catholic teaching.) I felt that no one addressed this point effectively, although it was difficult because her question wasn't so much a question as a diatribe.

This professor was conflating "Catholic identity" with identification with a race, ethnic group, or sexual orientation, and I think that is a mistake. I would have drawn a distinction between "Catholic-ness" and the kind of "homosexual identity" that she seems to want to foster, by pointing out that Catholic identity is not an end in itself. If Catholic practice and appearances of being Catholic become the end goal, then what we have are "cultural Catholics." That doesn't get people to heaven. The goal is always to become saints, to be united with Jesus Christ! As opposed to inward turned goals, the end goal of forming Catholic identity is to lead people into a relationship with Christ and his Church. Formation of homosexual identity as it is commonly understood would be about self-fulfillment, self-gratification. Encouraging students to form "homosexual identities" runs counter to the formation of Catholic identity which is centered on Christ, and therefore Notre Dame has no business doing such a thing. (I wish I could formulate my thoughts on this a little bit better, but this is what you get, sorry blog readers!)

A student, who identified himself as a member of the Core Council on gay and lesbian issues, asked a question about gay Catholics feeling excluded from the Church. I don't remember the specifics of the question, or all the answers, but I do remember something Ms. Selmys said that I agreed with strongly. She said that people with homosexual attractions perceive a hypocrisy within the Church, because the clergy and laity who condemn homosexual activity seem to turn a blind eye to the sexual sins of heterosexuals. She pointed out that it's easy for a gay person to feel put-upon when he sees a priest marrying a couple who has openly cohabited. I would add also that contraception is a serious sin which is almost never preached on from the pulpit. I agree that more attention needs to be paid to the Catholic sexual ethics as a whole. Heterosexual Catholics can fall prey to plenty of sexual sins as well, and it needs to be emphasized that we are all called to chastity according to our state of life.

I was most gratified to see Dr. Kilpatrick taking part. Although I don't think most people would consider an engineering dean to be any kind of an "expert" on these issues, it was really great to have a representative of Notre Dame's Catholic faculty present. This was especially good since one of the questions was directed towards ND's non-discrimination policy, and whether the panelists supported changing it to include sexual orientation. The young woman who asked it was one of the more vocal members of the "protest group" outside and referred to herself as "queer.". I'm not sure I heard correctly, but I think she stated that she felt "threatened" by the atmosphere on campus and by Ms. Selmys' talk. Threatened? I found it very odd. I suppose it really is threatening, in a sense, to listen to someone who used to subscribe to your entire worldview and has since had a conversion of heart. But I doubt that's what she meant.

Later on I was in the ladies room and witnessed an older woman calmly reproving this student for the obscene content of the poetry that was read. Her response was something to the effect of "This is about the body, and we celebrate the body and find it beautiful." The older woman objected to the profanities and the student responded "We'll take that under advisement." To me it showed a profound lack of understanding. If you are trying to persuade people of the rightness of your cause, why go out of your way to do something that you know will be offensive to them? Deliberate abrasiveness is totally counterproductive. (As an aside, I wonder how many of these protesters considered ND Response "disrespectful" of President Obama and believed we had no place on campus.)

I was disappointed that the "protest group" immediately left after the talk on homosexuality. They would have gotten so much more out of it had they gone to Dr. Reimer's talk on Theology of the Body. It was sort of "ToB 101" so I didn't hear much that was new, but it was a great refresher nevertheless. (Dr. Reimers is a member of the Communion and Liberation group I've been attending and he and his wife are lovely people.)

To me their hasty departure said volumes. They were not interested in understanding Catholic sexual ethics, merely in protesting what they do not understand. Again, if you are seeking to convince, why not at least try to understand your opponents? I do appreciate the respectfulness once Ms. Selmys' talk started, but I feel that they really deprived themselves by not going to more talks and seeing what we are really all about. There's this whole well of knowledge, the treasure of the Church that is Theology of the Body, that they just plain aren't interested in because of their preconceptions. It just makes me sad.

I came home to a wonderful steak dinner and a raspberry chocolate mousse prepared by my loving and diligent husband. Marriage isn't always a bed of roses, but the little things can make it very sweet. Now I'm off to finish some housework. Chinese New Year is tomorrow, and it is traditional to clean the house before hand so all is in readiness for the new beginning. It's a tradition I haven't always kept, but I'm trying to do so this year.

(Disclaimer: My record of the ESC is totally from memory, I did not take any notes. I tried to get everything right. If anyone wishes to correct any quotes I have made, please feel free to comment.)

Edith Stein Conference 2010, part 1

:This weekend was the annual Edith Stein Conference, which is put on by the idND club to bring speakers to campus to address issues of interpersonal relationships, sexuality, and identity from a Catholic perspective. I went last year and enjoyed it very much. However, made the fatal mistake of not blogging about it, so my memories are vague. I'm determined not to do the same this year, so here I am camped out on the couch, blogging away!

I missed Friday's talks last year due to my scheduling and this year was the same. Between lab meeting, a TA walkthrough, and Bioseminar, my Friday afternoon was packed! I intended to make it to this morning's first presentation, but I was, frankly, slothful this morning and didn't get there in time. The first presentation I made it to ended up being something I wouldn't have chosen for myself, but it turned out to be great. The speaker was Mother Dolores Hart, the abbess of a Benedictine abbey in Connecticut. She spoke about her former life as an actress, both on film and on Broadway, and how she was able to continue her vocation in acting even after she joined the Benedictines. (She had been in two movies with Elvis Presley, and I particularly appreciated her description of Elvis as "a lovely man.")

Mother Dolores' background in acting was evident in her bearing and presence. Listening to her was like listening to a favorite older aunt recalling her life. While still a successful actress, she had come to know the Mother of the abbey, and she was invited to spend a vacation with the nuns. In spite of wanting to continue her career, she found herself drawn more and more to the cloister. She eventually could not ignore the call of God and entered religious life. However, she still maintained contacts and friendships from her Hollywood life, and these friends, after they had come to spend time at the abbey, gave money to build a theater there. During the annual "Abbey Fest", which is well attended by the locals, the sisters put on plays there - everything from Shakespeare to Sartre. In recent years they have even put on musicals with kids from the community. It was really wonderful listening to her story and thinking about how she was able to integrate two callings as seemingly disparate as acting and religious life. I'm thinking in particular about my own life, and my two conflicting calls to academic life and motherhood.

After Mother Dolores' talk, it was time for lunch, and I met up with my DH at Chipotle for a nice break. Coming back I was a little startled to see a group of maybe 20 people, whom I didn't recognize from the morning's talk, standing in a circle reading aloud and applauding each other. The subject matter ("let us define our own love") made it evident to me that these people were probably not in agreement with the aims of ESC. They were passing out slips of paper which stated that their purpose was to read "queer poetry" to protest the afternoon's speaker, Melinda Selmys, a lesbian turned Catholic who was going to lecture on homosexuality. It also became evident that the poems were what most people would call obscene. One of the conference organizers announced that the next talk would start soon, only to be shouted down by a "poet" who read a line and loudly emphasized the word "c**k." This in the presence of children. I was feeling quite upset and wondered if they would disrupt the talk.

I caught up with a fellow grad student inside the auditorium and we chatted a little bit about the disturbance outside. I struck up a conversation with a student sitting in front of me, who told me he was gay. "At least they could have picked some good gay poetry," he quipped. "Not exactly Oscar Wilde, is it?" I replied, smiling. "Or 'Glory be to God for dappled things,'" he said. "I probably won't agree with everything this speaker says, but what they are doing doesn't do anything except make people angrier."

(This is getting lengthy, and it's dinnertime, so you will hear all about the speaker in the next post!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"That's Unchristian!"

In my second year of grad school I have now become accustomed (I think) to being one of a handful of folks of the conservative persuasion in my workplace. If I'm going to pursue a career in academia, I'd better get used to it, right? Usually it doesn't really affect things - lots of good-natured teasing around election time last year, but otherwise nobody talks much about politics, and that's the way I like it.

One of the guys I work with closely is pretty liberal - I don't know if he uses the term "Christian Left" but I think if he heard it, he'd like it. He's very anti-war, anti-military spending, pro-universal healthcare, the whole nine yards. He likes to post a lot about political views on his Facebook. One thing that bothers me immensely is that he frequently accuses those who do not support socialized medicine, social welfare, and the like, of being "un-Christian." This seems to be a favorite tactic among the Christian liberals I have known. You can't lose when you have Jesus on your side, and slinging around slogans like, "Jesus would be for socialized medicine!" is a surefire way to make your opponents look bad.

Needless to say, I bristle at the implication my co-worker is making - that all who are politically conservative are by definition, "un-Christian." Jesus came among us as a man to establish a Church, not a political school of thought. Disagreeing with someone's politics doesn't make you less of a Christian than them, and there are people on both the right and the left who need to realize that. My views are these: Jesus gave us a very specific set of commands with regards to our duty towards the less fortunate. He commanded us plainly to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. He did not, however, command us to force Caesar to do these things. Our responsibility is personal and not to be shoved off on the government.

Christians can differ in their views on how Christ's commandment is best carried out. I personally think there is a place for some form of a social safety net in our society, but I don't necessarily believe that federal government is always the best means of establishing one. Some of these programs, as they are now structured, do not promote human freedom but rather a kind of bondage to the state, which I feel is antithetical to the dignity of the individual. (I should emphasize that certain issues are non-negotiable, i.e. abortion, euthanasia, and the like. We have to be careful to distinguish the non-negotiables from other issues which fall in the political and not the moral realm.)

The Church is neither Republican nor Democrat, but eternal. My co-worker is a Christian, and I am a Christian, in spite of the fact that we disagree on the way the country should be run. For anyone to say otherwise would be, well, un-Christian!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bad Vestments R Us

I'm addicted to snark blogs, so this was right up my alley. Via Shrine of the Holy Whapping, a site skewering bad vestments. Although Episcopalian priestesses seem to be overrepresented, the blog is refreshingly ecumenical; Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions are well represented, with a few Lutherans and even an Orthodox priest thrown in for good measure. Love it! Now I'd like to see them take on some of the more flamboyant Black Pentecostal churches. They have bishops with croziers and vestments that are downright blingin'. They'd put the priestesses to shame!

Monday, February 1, 2010

And so it begins

I was wondering how long it would take for the Observer to publish a letter (responding to another student's defense of Catholic teaching on homosexuality) that accuses observant Catholics of "bigotry" and homophobia. I actually thought it would come a lot faster. Observer, you slay me.

This is why I believe that a change in the non-discrimination clause opens the door to disciplinary and legal actions against students who hold Catholic convictions about sinfulness of homosexual acts. If a student can be slandered openly as a bigot for daring to quote the Catechism, well, it doesn't bode well, does it?

I have to say I really don't understand these students at all. If I was going to a school whose policies I discovered to be utterly against my most deeply-held beliefs, I think I might transfer rather than trying to remake an entire university in my own image. But hey, apparently what Notre Dame really needs is to become another Purdue or UC Berkeley or Yale, devoid of any vestige of that icky-sticky Catholicism stuff. Sure, we could keep the nice art, and that cool teaching about social justice, but all that medieval blather about sin and natural law needs to go! All hail Progress!

Keep the stained glass and the pretty statues but pull the moral and theological foundation from under them - that seems to be the prevailing line of thought amongst some of the students agitating here. It makes no sense to me - perhaps because I have come to understand that the Catholic Faith is a beautiful and coherent whole. If the Catholic Church has no authority to teach the truth about homosexuality or birth control or any one of a host of "difficult topics," how can we trust Her authority on anything else? This schizophrenic mindset is one that is present among so many today. We accept the teachings only when they make us feel good, only when they coincide with our particular world view. I know this is a challenge that I struggle with myself.

I am so very much looking forward to the Edith Stein conference this year - not just for the petty pleasure (and I freely admit it is petty - I've never claimed to be a saint) of being amongst like-minded people, but for the insights I will gain about theology, about the universal call to chastity, about God and man and the relationships thereof. Notre Dame is one of the few places I would have such an opportunity every year. God grant it may always be so.