Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Chieftains

Last night some friends took me to a Chieftains concert. We live in a university town and so famous artists do sometimes perform here. It was an uplifting musical evening and somehow did not seem out of keeping with Lent. There is an austerity and spirituality innate in Irish music; it seems to be interwoven with the landscape of Ireland. Through the harp, pipes, bodhran and tin whistle one can glimpse the sparkling waters, the mist, the fields, the seven shades of green. They had some dancers and it was hard to watch and keep still. The music was almost out of place in the vast auditorium and I found myself wishing for the quaint intimacy of a pub. The Chieftains are on a world tour and so I would recommend seeing them if they come your way. Here is a YouTube sample of their music as well as a history of Irish music in general. Share

The Oblation of Saint Thérèse

On June 9, 1895, at the Carmel of Lisieux, Saint Thérèse made the Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. In her autobiography she said: "I received the grace to understand, more than ever, how much Jesus desires to be loved." Instead of offering herself as victim to the justice of God, as did other religious, taking upon themselves the "punishment reserved for sinners," Saint Thérèse decided to offer herself as a victim to the Merciful Love of God. She asked to be consumed as a holocaust in the fire of the Sacred Heart, in order to console that Heart and save souls. "Fire transforms all things into itself, " the saint wrote in her Act of Oblation. "I know that the fire of love is more sanctifying than the fire of Purgatory."

With her Act of Oblation, Saint Thérèse did not expect sufferings to go away. "I wish to suffer for Love's sake and for Love's sake even to rejoice...I will sing always, even if my roses must be gathered among thorns...." In a letter to her sister Celine, she explained: "The burden of our song is suffering. Jesus offers us a chalice of great bitterness. Let us not withdraw our lips from it, but suffer in peace. He who says peace does not say joy, or at least sensible joy....Do not think we can find love without suffering...."

Through her Oblation to Merciful Love, Saint Thérèse gained a deep insight into her Carmelite vocation. "I understand that love embraces all vocations, that it is all things, and that it reaches out through all ages, and to the uttermost limits of the earth, because it is eternal....In the heart of the Church my Mother, I will be love." She prayed that after her death she be allowed to "return to earth" to keep saving souls. She said: "I want to spend my heaven doing good upon earth."

"You will look down from Heaven, will you not?" asked her sister when Saint Thérèse was mortally ill.

No," replied the dying young woman. "I will come down." Another time she said: "After my death, I will let fall from Heaven a shower of roses."

On September 30, 1897, in great mental and physical agony, the twenty-four year old nun, gasping for breath, proclaimed: "I do not regret having surrendered myself to Love." A few hours later, her last words were: "My God, I love Thee."

The miracles which followed her death took the Church and the world by storm.

(All quotations are from the book Soeur Thérèse of Lisieux, The Little Flower, 1912)


Conversion and Spiritual Reading

Lent is a time of conversion. Don Marco has some beautiful reflections on conversion and lectio divina. In Lents of the past, I have often read Preparation for Death by Saint Alphonsus Liguori. It is a life-changing book which can be pondered many times with new riches revealed in each reading. Saint Alphonsus is great at putting everything into perspective. His work on The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ is excellent Lenten material, too.

Another book that can be read repeatedly, offering fresh insights, is one I saw recommended on Elena's site. It is The Hidden Power of Kindness by Father Lovasik. I have sometimes used it in adult etiquette classes, because it explores kindness as the essence of our interactions with others; good manners are empty without charity of heart. It is a book which helps with outward behavior as well as giving spiritual advice. Father Lovasik speaks of the dangers of discouragement to the spiritual life:

There are few things which resist grace so much as discouragement. Many plans for God's glory have failed because there was no bright look or or kind eye or kind word to support them. You may not have come forward with the help your brother needs, because you were busy with your own work and never looked at his, or because you were jealous and looked coldly and spoke critically.

A kind deed, a kind word, or the mere tone of voice is enough to convey sympathy to the poor suffering heart, and in one instant all is right again. The downcast soul is encouraged to do bravely the very thing which, in a mood of discouragement, it had almost resolved to leave undone. That encouragement may be the first link of a new chain, which, when finished, will result in final perseverance. (Lovasik, Lawrence. The Hidden Power of Kindness. p.10)

How vital it is especially in families to help each other fend off discouragement, especially when the times are full of foreboding. Lent is a wonderful season to start building new, positive patterns of behavior.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


As students of the French Revolution know, Talleyrand (1754-1838) is someone who will not go away. He keeps turning up again, always at the top of every new regime. For those who have read Madame Royale, in case you were wondering, yes, Talleyrand was reconciled to the Church before he died. A bishop who helped sign the Church in France over to the Revolutionary government, as well as a notorious philanderer, Talleyrand's was no doubt a conversion wrought by many, many prayers, probably the prayers of the monks and nuns whom he would discreetly help. In spite of his involvement in the Revolution, he continued to make donations to pious and deserving religious houses throughout his life. He was also perhaps the most brilliant diplomat who ever lived; his machinations on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna spared his people a great deal of extra grief.

Talleyrand had not wanted to become a priest; his family pressured him into it, since because of his limp he would never be able to ride or dance in the manner becoming a courtier. Talleyrand said, "I will make them regret that they ordained me, " and that was one promise he kept. He was not able to keep his marriage vows any better than he had kept his clerical vows. He married his mistress the actress Catherine Grand in a civil ceremony because Napoleon insisted on a veneer of respectability. He remained attached to the lifestyle of the old regime in spite of his revolutionary involvement and he missed the courtly ways. Whatever else can be said for him, his manners were unfailingly gracious; he remained an aristocrat of a bygone era.

His great love was no doubt the wife of his nephew, Dorothea of Courland, the Duchess of Dino. She lived in his house for many years, although there is no solid proof that he fathered one of her children. It was teaching his little nieces and nephews their prayers that led to his reversion to the faith. He was not completely reconciled to the Church until his deathbed though, and then he corrected the priest who was administering extreme unction, as the minister was about to anoint the palms of his hands. "Remember, I am a bishop," Talleyrand reminded, and the priest anointed the backs of his hands. He was sincerely mourned by the people of France who knew that, politically at least, he had worked for their benefit. Share

Monday, February 26, 2007

William Wilberforce: the movie

This looks like a really good movie about the devout British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Here is a review, via a wonderful site called Mommy Life. We always enjoy seeing the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd in period pieces. It is interesting how there was no slavery in France; a former slave was a knight and celebrated musician at the royal court, as is discussed below. Also, the film shows how slavery could be abolished through peaceful measures, without war, and with minimal social chaos. Share

Are there any gentlemen left?

Here is an article "especially for the unmarried," via Ladies Against Feminism. Share

More on how Pope Pius XII was smeared by the KGB

Not that we should be surprised.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Puccini's La Rondine

Giacomo Puccini's opera La Rondine is not one of his most popular ones, but I like it. I have for a long time. It was one of the operas I listened to while working for my Master's degree; it seemed to fit in with the bohemian lifestyle of graduate students. Not that I was by any means bohemian; there are limits to how wild one can get while living in a flat with one's grandmother in Schenectady. But part of the scene of university life is that while it seems like it will go on depressingly forever, the future is often uncertain, which can create a malaise. And meanwhile, in most university towns, there are bars and nightclubs where people fall in love, and hearts are broken, just like in La Rondine.

"Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" is one of the most exquisite arias ever composed; it was featured in the Merchant-Ivory film A Room With A View. "What do riches matter when happiness has blossomed at last?" is the theme of the song, and of the opera. Basically, the story of La Rondine ("The Swallow") is along the lines of Verdi's La Traviata and its film version, Camille, both based on the Dumas novel. A sad but good-hearted courtesan finds true love at last, but because the love is sincere, she must leave the man she loves for his own good. La Rondine is different because the heroine does not die of tuberculosis; she only goes away.

Yes, the characters are decadent; yet, they are able at some point to acknowledge their immoral behavior, or at least lament it. Because it was frowned upon by society that men and women live together without being married, there was more hope that the relationships be broken off, especially if marriage was out of the question. Guilt is not healthy if nourished but it can and does lead to repentance.

We live now in a shameless time. Parents no longer intervene as the fathers do in both La Traviata and La Rondine. In those old operas, there was sin, there was great passion, but there was also great love and the willingness to make sacrifices for the beloved. There is now little shame, little love and few willing to sacrifice. And sometimes I wonder if people are really happy. Share

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Boulogne (1745-1799), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, known as "le Mozart noir" or "the black Mozart," was one of the most enigmatic gentlemen at Versailles in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution. The son of a Caribbean slave woman, the chevalier's presence in the highest circles of society contradicts the view many people have of royal France being a place of restriction. On the contrary, the reign of Louis XVI was a truly open and diverse era, in which talent was rewarded and the gifted could go far. Marie-Antoinette called the chevalier "my favorite American" and asked that the gifted violinist and composer give her musical instruction; the king made Saint-Georges director of the Royal Opera House. A skilled athlete and swordsman, the chevalier also frequented the Palais Royal in Paris and was part of the coterie of the Duke of Orleans. With such company, it is not surprising that he became the first African French freemason and eventually fought for the revolutionary government. Nevertheless, he had so many aristocratic connections that his art was not as appreciated by the new regime as it had been by the royal family. The chevalier died four years after Louis and Antoinette were killed, in 1799.

A site dedicated to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges has the following to say about him:

The story of the Chevalier de Saint-George ("Knight of Saint-George") depicts the rise, fall, and rebirth of an athletic, musical, and military hero who became a superstar in 18th century France. Born on Christmas Day, 1745 in the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, to a Senegalese slave and a French colonialist, Saint-George was a breakthrough composer and violin virtuoso who came to be called "Le Mozart Noir". He became the first black man to lead France`s most important orchestras. Saint-George was also Europe`s finest fencer, a master horseman, elite musketeer, infamous playboy, and a Colonel who led an army in the French Revolution. Described by poets of his day as a "French Hercules", "a veritable Mars", and a "rival of Apollo", Saint-George stands out as one of the most extraordinary figures of the 18th century.

The "King of Pop" of his age, Saint-George`s celebrity was known throughout Europe and word of his fame eventually reached the U.S. John Adams, the 2nd U.S. President, was reportedly given an account of Saint-George by one of his aides: "He is the most accomplished man in Europe, in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music. He will hit the button - any button on the coat or waistcoat of the greatest masters. He will hit a crown-piece in the air with a pistol-ball."

Truly a fascinating character and it is a shame that he and his music are not more widely known.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Skellig Michael

From the sixth century to the thirteenth there lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland a community of monks. The island was called "Skellig Michael" for it was dedicated to the Archangel by that name. Skellig Michael was a rocky precipice at the mercy of the Atlantic storms. The monks dwelled in stone bee hive huts and ate garden vegetables, seaweed, honey, fish and shellfish. They kept an orderly and rigorous horarium, chanting the psalms, praying in the solitude of their huts or in more remote caves, high on the cliffs, in silence except for the winds, waves and sea gulls.

Author Geoffrey Moorhouse describes the details of life on Skellig Michael, and of Irish monks in general, in his book Sun Dancing (1997). I read it on a cruise to Bermuda a couple of years ago. Looking out to sea I would think about the Irish monks in another part of that same ocean, long ago. There is something about being surrounded by nothing but water that puts the soul immediately in touch with the infinite.

Moorhouse tells of the "green martyrdom" sought by the monks, the penitential life of strict fasting, solitude, silence, poverty, chastity and obedience. According to the traditions of Celtic monasticism, the Irish cenobites wore long white robes of undyed wool, the front of their heads shaved from ear to ear, with long hair flowing in the back. The shaving of the head was called the "tonsure" and was different from the Roman practice of shaving the crown of the head.

There is also mention of the "extreme violence" of the pagan Irish culture, including human sacrifice. Such grotesque practices disappeared with the coming of Christianity, but the Irish belligerence was not tamed. Irish monasticism was a stranger to pacificism; the monks on the mainland would have feuds and communities would battle each other over land or cattle. The skelligs seemed to be peaceful, however, for many centuries, except for occasional Viking raids.

No one knows for certain why the monks eventually left Skellig Michael and withdrew to a monastery on the coast of County Kerry. Moorhouse explores the various changes that occurred in Irish culture due to the Viking and Norman incursions, which may also have led to the monks' departure. Sun Dancing is a collection of stories about forgotten heroic souls, whose radical lifestyle remains a source of mystery and fascination. Share

Beatrix Potter's Inner Life

The great children's author and illustrator's secret struggles and turmoils are pondered in this thoughtful book review. Here is an informative website about her as well. As children we loved Miss Potter's stories; we still do. Share

Lost Jacobite Gold

I always wondered what happened to it. Here is an article found on Lew about what became of the money sent by the King of France to help the doomed cause of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Share

Friday, February 23, 2007

Taki's List

Taki discusses poetry and some of his favorite things. Share


This site has been experiencing some difficulties in the last day or so. If anyone's comments have not been posted, it is because of the technical problems. So sorry. Things should be fixed now so please feel free to comment again if your original comment got lost in cyberspace. Share

Le Hameau de la Reine

In 1783, Queen Marie-Antoinette commissioned the architect Mique to build a village and farm on the grounds of her private retreat, the Petit Trianon. The "little hamlet" was to provide food for the royal family, thus giving an example of self-sufficiency to other nobles, as well as celebrating the traditional agricultural life of the French people. The queen invited several destitute families to live and work in the hameau. She saw the farm as a way that her children could experience the healthiness of country life, without actually leaving Versailles. Life in the palace had little or no privacy for the royal family; Marie-Antoinette wanted her children to have one place where they could be themselves. Like many "home-schooling" parents, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette feared that their children would grow up too isolated from the real world. The farm was a "safe" environment where they could get an idea of how ordinary people lived, see the livestock, learn about plants and nature. Most of all, it was a place for the children to play.

The farm has often been cited as an example of decadence on the part of Marie-Antoinette, particularly the dairy with the porcelain milk pitchers. However, it must be taken into account that wealthy people all over Europe were building "follies" in their gardens, such as a fake ruined castles, ornate mosques, Chinese tea houses, solely for decoration. At least, Marie-Antoinette's hameau had a practical purpose. Of course, she would not wear an elaborate court gown when spending time on the farm; she would wear a simple cotton dress and sometimes an apron. Therefore she is still accused of "playing dairy maid." I somehow do not see how milking cows with her children and friends can be regarded as extreme frivolity; it seems like a fairly innocent past time to me. In the main "farm house" there was elegant furniture, a billiard table and such amenities for entertaining in the manner expected of a queen. Foreign guests and ambassadors were occasionally given hospitality at the hameau, although it was mainly just for the family.

There was also an orchard, berry bushes, fishing in the pond, and lots of vegetables in the garden. Everyone needs a refuge, a cozy corner, a place to be quiet. In our busy world there seems to be more of an appreciation of Marie-Antoinette's creative way of carving out a retreat for herself and her family, one which patronized and exulted French craftsmanship while simultaneously helping the poor.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fergus and Frank: Part 3, Kingston

The photo above is Dr. Fergus Joseph O’Connor in 1964 at age eighty-five with four of his great grandchildren. (On the left are cousin Ted Kaiser and my brother Padraic. Baby cousin Kevin Kaiser is in great grandfather's arms and I am the small girl on the end.)I am grateful for the few memories I have of this wonderful man, a true patriarch. I recall how approachable he was, how kindly and gentle with small children. A Kingston newspaper article described him in his nineties as being “still active and spry…his eyes twinkling….with short quick steps“ and that is exactly as he appears in my memory.

In 19
18, Dr and Mrs. Fergus O’Connor, my great-grandparents, moved to 193 Earl Street in Kingston, Ontario, with seven of their soon-to-be eight children. A white rose bush from the original that old Daniel had brought over from Ireland was planted outside the front door. It was an elegant brick row house around the corner from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where Fergus and Frank had been married eleven years earlier, and where several of their children and even some of their grandchildren would eventually be wed. “One ninety-three,” as the house is still referred to among my relatives, although it passed out of the family in 1988, seemed like a palace to me as a child, with it’s high ceilings, beautifully carved furniture, and three stories of rooms. It was not a palace though, or even a mansion, just a grand old house.

Fergus slowly built up a new practice. He taught medicine at Queen’s University, and continued on the faculty for forty years. His close friend, Monsignor J.G. Hanley said of him:

His concern for his students was not limited to their professional development. Working in an area fraught with deep moral implications, he instilled in future obstetricians sound ethical principles to guide them in making crucial decisions which would crucially affect the lives of their patients. Moreover, he was not merely a professor to his students; they all regarded him as a personal friend, and so he was.

By the late 1930’s he was delivering one third of all the babies in Kingston. He had many poor patients who could not pay, but to Fergus being a doctor was a vocation, not a career. However, he would gratefully accept an offering such as a bag of potatoes in the place of money, so that he could feed his family. He eventually became Chief of Obstetrics at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston and remained so for almost half a century. He delivered his last baby at age eighty-four.

Fergus was also active in the community and the church. He was on the Separate School Board for many years, as well as being a city alderman. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus and in 1945 founded the Queen’s chapter of the Newman Club.

During those years, Frank was devoted to raising the family. She was a conscientious mother, and as my grandmother told me, “She never spoiled a child.” Frank was a bit shocked by the cultural changes of the twenties, but she was not a prude. On her At Home days, when other ladies would stop by for tea, she would ask my grandmother to dance the Charleston for the guests. She was active in the church and the Catholic Women’s League. She had many charities, especially during the Depression, when a pot of soup was kept on the stove to feed any beggars who came to the kitchen door. She diligently prepared her children for their first Holy Communion, not trusting anyone else to do it properly. She insisted upon them all wearing a scapular, although she preferred the scapular medals to the cloth ones.

In the late 1920’s, when my grandmother Norah was in college, she told me that her mother, Frances, became ill, took to her bed, and lived secluded for a couple of years. Norah, the oldest daughter, ran the house. Whether it was depression, or change of life, or some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction to having so many family deaths as a young girl, or a combination of the three, I do not know. Whatever it was, she got over it, and became again an active and beloved participant in family and church activities.

Their children grew up and all but the three youngest daughters married. Both sons became physicians. The two youngest daughters, Pat and Sheila, became nurses and served in Europe during World War II. The hardships of the war took a toll on Pat’s health and she died, of cancer, in 1949, at the age of thirty. It was by no means the first tragedy the family had to face; in 1943, a darling little grandson died in a terrible accident. Frances herself died in 1956, to be followed by her oldest son Maurice in 1963. Around that time, Fergus retired, although he still had a few patients who persisted in coming to see him. A relative told me that many people felt better just after talking to Dr. O’Connor; he had a gift for healing that went beyond medical knowledge.

In March of 1966, Dr. Fergus O’Connor received the medal of the Holy Cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” from Pope Paul VI, in recognition of his contributions to medicine for over sixty years. The papal nuncio came to the house at 193 Earl Street to bestow the medal, due to the advanced age of the recipient, celebrating Mass there as well. My great grandfather died on April 21, 1971. I saw him not long before he passed away. He was already ill and we children were brought upstairs to visit him; I kissed his cheek. As their son wrote of Fergus and Frances O’Connor:

We were always encouraged to aim high—accomplish as much as possible, accepting the results. We were all given as much freedom as possible to live our lives, with parental guidance that was not too directed and with a family attitude of loving, direct example and a family history shown by Mother and Dad. (from Because You Asked For It by Dr. Fergus James O’Connor.)

Rest in peace, my dear great grandparents!


The Vanishing Christians of Iraq

I was glad to see this excellent article on Taki's site. Share

Pope Benedict recommends prayer with fasting for Lent

I came across this article, thanks to Spirit Daily. I think that these words of the Holy Father are especially apropos:

We have 40 days to deepen the relationship with God during the austere period of Lent, Pope Benedict said, noting the faithful have useful instruments to achieve a true inner and communal renewal: charity or almsgiving, prayer and penance or fasting.

Such external gestures, which must be performed to please God and not to get men’s approval, are acceptable to him if they express the heart’s determination to serve him only in simplicity and generosity.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Palace of Caserta

One of the most splendid palaces of Europe, surpassing even the vastness of Versailles, was the palace of Caserta of the Bourbon kings of Naples. Marie-Antoinette's strong-willed sister Queen Maria Carolina lived there, as well as her grand-niece Caroline, the Duchesse de Berry. The scene in the novel Madame Royale where Caroline and Ettore pledge their love takes place in the gardens of Caserta. Share

Irish monks and pilgrims

I have always been fascinated with Irish monasticism. I read somewhere the Irish monks and nuns rivaled the Desert Fathers in austerity and penance. They had an early form of the rosary, using pebbles to keep track of all 150 psalms, often recited standing in icy water. I found some links about Irish monasticism, pilgrimages, and holy wells. Dr Deborah Vess has done a great deal of research about Celtic monasticism and devotional pratice. She says this about Irish pilgrimages:

Thousands and thousands of pilgrims past and present trod these and many other roads. These pilgrims and their journeys need not be things of the past; they continue to live in all of us. We are all peregrini in this world, and the Celtic saints and their journeys remind us that each place we are in calls us to be transformed, while each journey we make takes us deeper into that one special place where we are most at home. Although it seems that the Celtic saints wandered in an aimless way, they believed that in the end their goal would be found -- finding their place of resurrection, that place where they would cross from this world to the next.

This is a good way to view Lent, as a pilgrimage from this world to the next, believing that on Easter day we will have one foot in Heaven.

I also found this controversial article. Share

Cheese, Soup and Bread

Many people eat lighter meals during Lent. Sometimes the perfect collation is a hearty soup or salad with some good bread and cheese. Here are some cheese suggestions from Cottage Living magazine.

Here is a recipe for lentil soup. It is great for Fridays of Lent if you do not care for fish. Here are some other soup recipes, not all vegetarian.

And another great site, with recipes for breads and bagels. Bagels are good fasting fare; one can keep you going a for awhile. Share

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

Our forty days of penance commence with the reception of blessed ashes. The words from the book of Genesis (3:19) help us to think of the shortness of life, of our last end, and of that moment when each shall come before God to be judged. "Remember," wrote Saint Teresa of Avila, "that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; that there is only one glory, which is eternal."

Since Old Testament times, ashes have been a symbol of sorrow for sin. "For I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping." (Psalm 101:10) In the early Church, only "public" sinners, those guilty of murder, adultery, or idolatry, who had formally repented, would receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, they would humbly kneel at the doors of the church, not entering until they were given absolution on Holy Thursday. The famous liturgist, Abbot Gueranger, gives a description of the ceremony "of the Wednesday in Quinquagesima:"

Before the Mass of the day began, they [the penitents] presented themselves at the church....The priests received the confession of their sins, and then clothed them in sackcloth, and sprinkled ashes on their heads...the clergy and the faithful prostrated themselves and recited aloud the seven penitential psalms. A procession, in which the penitents walked barefooted, then followed; and on its return, the bishop then addressed these words to the penitents: 'Behold, we drive you from the doors of the church by reason of your sins and crimes, as Adam, the first man, was driven out of paradise....' The clergy then sang several responsories, taken from the book of Genesis....The doors were shut, and the penitents were not to pass the threshold until Maunday Thursday, when they were to come to receive absolution. (The Liturgical Year, Vol IV, p 204-205)

During the Middle Ages, it became the custom for all of the faithful to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. We are blessed that so many indulgences can now be gained with very little effort on our part. How light are the penances now demanded of us; what little fasting is required of us! Perhaps the best penance is the patient and loving endurance of hardships and sorrows which come our way; those unchosen mortifications can be heavy enough. Interiorly, we can share the contrition of the brave penitents of old by receiving the ashes with great love for Christ and a determination to follow Him, no matter what. It is time for a new beginning, and for trying, again, to be a disciple.

A final thought for Shrove Tuesday

Here is a formula from the ancient Ambrosian liturgy, as quoted by Abbot Gueranger in The Liturgical Year for Shrove Tuesday:

Sweet is this present life, but it passes away; terrible, O Christ is thy judgment, and it endures forever. Let us, therefore, cease to love what is unstable, and fix our thought on what is eternal: saying: Christ, have mercy upon us!

Now the time has come to go into the desert, the desert of Lent.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving

Lent is like a retreat for the entire church in which all Christians strive more vigorously against the world, the flesh, and the devil, our spiritual enemies. The three works which Holy Mother Church exhorts us to perform during Lent in order to overcome those enemies are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through prayer, we grow in strength to conquer the evil one. It is important to make more time for prayer during Lent because it arouses compunction, charity, humility, and other dispositions without which the other two practices would be empty of merit.

We fast in order to imitate Our Lord's forty day fast in the desert. Unlike Him, we need to tame the concupiscence of the flesh, acquire self-discipline, and atone for our personal sins. It was by breaking God's commandment to abstain from eating a certain fruit that Adam and Eve lost the earthly paradise. Both Moses and Elias fasted for forty days before encountering the living God. (Exodus 24:18 and 3 Kings 19:8)

In former times, every day of Lent (except for Sundays and first-class feasts) was a fast day. Now, only two fast days remain -- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat, as are all Fridays of Lent. Many people think that the Second Vatican Council did away with Friday abstinence, but it did not. Every Friday of the year is a day of abstinence from meat unless the bishops of the country decide to substitute another form of penance. In the United States, it is up to every individual to perform some other Friday penance if they are not able to abstain from meat. However, every Friday of Lent remains a day of strict abstinence.

The third Lenten good work is almsgiving, by which we overcome the "world," that is, the love of riches, luxuries, and honors. Through almsgiving we not only help the poor, the missions, and the temporal needs of the Church, but we mortify any any inordinate desires for material things. By having Masses offered, our alms can assist the "Church Suffering" in purgatory. As the aged Tobias said to his son: "Prayer is good with fasting and alms more than more than to lay up treasures of gold. For alms delivereth from death, and...purgeth away sins." (Tobias 12:8-9) As Jesus commands in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday: "Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing." (Matthew 6:3) It is most important that all our good works are accompanied by charity, humility, and the desire to please God alone.

Swiss Monasteries

A reader sent me some fascinating links with stories about Swiss monasteries having to confront the forces of Revolution. Monasteries have from the first centuries of the Church been centers of learning, art, and culture as well as prayer and penance. They are usually some of the first places overthrown by those who would secularize the world. The Swiss are known for not tolerating invaders of their homeland.

Here is what the learned reader shared with me about what happened when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Switzerland in 1798:

When the French soldiers went to Engelberg, which at the time belonged to the Abbey of Engelberg, including the population. The farmers (peasants) were none to too pleased to be told that God was dead, that everyone was equal, and they were now free, and no longer the serfs of the Prince-Abbot, and charged the French soldiers. If memory serves me right, the farmers charged the French musketeers with their pitchforks, and sustained more than 200 dead compared to somewhere between 10 and 20 French casualties. But it was the French soldiers who fled the battlefield. Long afterwards, perhaps to this day, the people from around Engelberg are proud of this victory.

The persecutions led to the monastic traditions being brought to America:

In 1841, anti-clerical forces stormed the abbey of Muri, (pictures) and disbanded it, and some other monasteries . (They also confiscated the equivalent of seven year's taxes from the monasteries.) As always, the argument was about money. The Austrians almost declared war, and the monks from Muri went to Engelberg. The monks in Engelberg were afraid that they may be next and eventually sent a delegation out to start a monastery in Oregon, Mount Angel by name. Einsiedeln, which had to forfeit two of its four castles, established Saint Meinrad.

I have been to Switzerland once, by accident. When flying back to Washington, D.C. from Vienna, the plane had engine trouble. We had an emergency landing in Geneva; the airline put us up in a pleasant hotel where there was lots of complimentary food and wine. It was a delightful stay. I hope to return at some point, especially now that I am more aware of the existence of such beautiful monasteries.

The reply to "The Times" article on Catholic-Anglican Relations

From the Vatican Information Service:

VATICAN CITY, FEB 20, 2007 (VIS) - Made public today was a note signed by Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby and Anglican Bishop David Beetge, co-presidents of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), regarding an article published yesterday in the British newspaper "The Times" on the IARCCUM document: "Growing Together in Unity and Mission."

"'Growing Together in Unity and Mission' has not yet been officially published," the English-language note reads. "It is unfortunate that is contents have been prematurely reported in a way which misrepresents its intentions and sensationalizes its conclusions. The first part of the document, which treats doctrinal matters, is an attempt to synthesize the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) over the past 35 years. It identifies the level of agreement which has been reached by ARCIC, but is also very clear in identifying ongoing areas of disagreement, and in raising questions which still need to be addressed in dialogue. Those ongoing questions and areas of disagreement are highlighted in boxed sections interspersed throughout the text. It is a very honest document assessing the state of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations at the present moment."

The note continues: "The Times article speculates about the Catholic Church's response to a possible schism within the Anglican Communion. It should be pointed out that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has consistently spoken of the value of the Anglican Communion remaining a communion, rooted in the Apostolic faith, as indicated in this statement from 2004: 'It is our overwhelming desire that the Anglican Communion stays together, rooted in the historic faith which our dialogue and relations over four decades have led us to believe that we share to a large degree'."
VIS 070220 (300) Share

The Holy Face of Jesus

Shrove Tuesday is the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus. Don Marco has some excellent meditations on this beautiful devotion. (I highly recommend his site for daily spiritual reading during Lent.)

The image to the left is the representation of the imprint of Our Lord's face on the Veronica veil, as it is venerated in the Carmelite Order, and propagated by Sister Marie de Saint Pierre and Venerable Leo Dupont.

Here is the prayer of Saint Therese of Lisieux to the Holy Face:

O Jesus, who in Thy bitter Passion didst become "the most abject of men, a man of sorrows," I venerate Thy Sacred Face whereon there once did shine the beauty and sweetness of the Godhead; but now it has become for me as if it were the face of a leper! Nevertheless, under those disfigured features, I recognize Thy infinite Love and I am consumed with the desire to love Thee and make Thee loved by all men. The tears which well up abundantly in Thy sacred eyes appear to me as so many precious pearls that I love to gather up, in order to purchase the souls of poor sinners by means of their infinite value. O Jesus, whose adorable Face ravishes my heart, I implore Thee to fix deep within me Thy divine image and to set me on fire with Thy Love, that I may be found worthy to come to the contemplation of Thy glorious Face in Heaven. Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Battle of the Brave (2004)

I had never even heard of Battle of the Brave, filmed in Quebec, with major actors such as Gerard Depardieu in cameo roles. My husband found it in the discount bin at the video store. It received really bad reviews; I would never have watched it if I had read them first. A torrid romance set in French Canada in the mid-18th century; we actually found it rather entertaining, although we would not recommend it for children. Madame Pompadour was one of the characters and I have rarely seen her portrayed in a film. The scenery was ravishing; the sets and costumes accurate enough to capture the roughness of life in Nouvelle-France (although everyone had pearly teeth.) It reminded me of the stories I would act out with my Barbie dolls as a child, usually involving dysfunctional families on the frontier. It was not the most edifying movie of the year, for the priest character is a wretch, although the nuns are sweet and holy. However, amid the melodrama, there were some plot twists which I did not expect, and the ending left us so stunned we were numb. I recommend a box of tissues for women who weep during tragic films. All in all, it did show the sacrifices of true love, and especially the heroism of a mother's love for her child. We might watch it again, although not any time soon. Share

Calumny, Slander, and Detraction

Father Jim Tucker has an excellent post about calumny and detraction. If we Catholics do nothing else for Lent, let us at least work on rooting out such bad habits. I have seen more friendships and relationships in church-related groups destroyed by gossip and slander, as well as unity in extended families. Catholics who are already beleaguered by the unbelieving world often find rejection in the Church due to some careless gossip. Be careful what you say about people, even if you know what you say is true; especially, use discretion in what you put on your blog. Only God knows all the details; only He knows both sides of the story. We believing Catholics should support each other, not tear each other down. Share

A Mother's Prayer to the Sacred Heart

Here is a Mother's Prayer to the Sacred Heart from Spirit Daily, sent in by a reader, as well as a meditation from Vultus Christi. Thinking of Our Lord's love for us and what He suffered is a good way to approach Lent. Share

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Church Unity

Will the Anglican church unite with Catholics under the Pope? Share

Thirty Days Prayer to Saint Joseph

Today begins the Thirty Days Prayer to Saint Joseph, in preparation for his feast on March 19. It is also about a month away from Saint Patrick's day. (We celebrate Saint Patrick's Day with an octave at our house.) I will be posting some articles about Irish history and culture over the next few weeks.

Does anyone know anything about the Ask Sister Mary Martha blog? I cannot tell if she is for real or not but it is certainly enjoyable to read what she has to say. "Life is tough. But Nuns are tougher." Isn't that the truth! Share

Thoughts on the Catholic Blog Awards

As many of you may know, there was a contest of "Catholic blogs" last week. I have no idea what the criteria was or who the people are who sponsored it. I never formally considered this a "Catholic" blog since I often deal with profane topics from history, novels, movies, and operas. I do approach such things from what is, hopefully, a Catholic point of view. (It is difficult to separate someone's outlook from their religious perspective, if that religion is sincere.)

At any rate, I was deeply touched to be told that some kind individual(s) had nominated me for the categories of "Best New Catholic Blog" and "Smartest Blog." I have not yet ascertained whether "smartest" in this case means "chic" or "intellectual." I do hope it means the former, since I am not a true intellectual; I am just a story-teller who enjoys historical research. Either way, I am truly complimented. I did not win; the people who won are the real intellectuals.

It is gratifying to see that people from all over the world are visiting here everyday, especially all of those readers from China. Welcome! I have made many new acquaintances through this site, as well as solidifying existing friendships. It is enough of a prize for a writer to know that they are being read. However, the nomination banners are down at the bottom of the sidebar. Thank you, I am grateful! Share

Quinquagesima Sunday

It is Quinquagesima Sunday. This weekend and the next couple days are traditional times of merry-making called "Mardi Gras." Here is a recipe for the "king cake." This is also the traditional season of Shrovetide, when most parishes had Forty Hours devotions in order to atone for the excesses of Carnival.

In the words of Dom Gueranger for "Quinquagesima Sunday:" We are commanded to use this world as if we used it not; to have an abiding conviction of our not having here a lasting city, and of the misery and danger we incur when we forget that death is one day to separate us from everything we possess in this life.
~from Abbot Gueranger's The Liturgical Year, Vol. IV) Share

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Duchesse de Berry's arrival on the coast of France in 1832

Here is a painting of the stormy arrival of Caroline, Duchesse de Berry, on the coast of France in her attempt to regain the throne for her son Henri V. She ended up being chased by the army all over Brittany disguised as a peasant boy. She was captured in a farmhouse where she was hiding in a chimney, and she was almost burned alive. She was incarcerated in the fortress of Blaye where she gave birth to a daughter, as is told in the novel Madame Royale. Share

How Brides Should Dress

Here are guidelines from the EWTN site about how brides should dress, as well as other particulars, discovered at Sedes Sapientiae. Share

Friday, February 16, 2007

Charitable Works of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette

With the approach of Lent we recall the duties of every Christian to apply themselves more fervently to alms-giving during that sacred season. In pre-revolutionary France it was for the King and the Queen to give an example to everyone else in this regard. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette took this duty seriously and throughout their reign did what they could to help the needy.

During the fireworks celebrating the marriage of the young prince and princess in May 1774, there was a stampede in which many people were killed. Louis and Antoinette gave all of their private spending money for a year to relieve the suffering of the victims and their families. They became very popular with the common people as a result, which was reflected in the adulation with which they were received when the Dauphin took his wife to Paris on her first "official" visit in June 1773. Marie-Antoinette's reputation for sweetness and mercy became even more entrenched in 1774, when as the new Queen she asked that the people be relieved of a tax called "The Queen's belt," customary at the beginning of each reign. "Belts are no longer worn," she said. It was only the onslaught of revolutionary propaganda that would eventually destroy her reputation.

Louis XVI often visited the poor in their homes and villages, distributing alms from his own purse. Madame Campan records in her Memoirs that during the difficult winter of 1776, the king oversaw the distribution of firewood among the peasants. The king was responsible for many humanitarian reforms. He went incognito to hospitals, prisons, and factories so as to gain first-hand knowledge of the conditions in which the people lived and worked.

The King and Queen were patrons of the Maison Philanthropique, a society founded by Louis XVI which helped the aged, blind and widows. The queen taught her daughter Madame Royale to wait upon peasant children, to sacrifice her Christmas gifts so as to by fuel and blankets for the destitute, and to bring baskets of food to the sick. Antoinette started a home for unwed mothers at the royal palace of Versailles. She adopted three poor children to be raised with her own, as well as overseeing the upbringing of several needy children, whose education she paid for, while caring for their families. She brought several peasant families to live on her farm at Trianon, building cottages for them. There was food for the hungry distributed every day at Versailles, at the King's command.

During the famine of 1787-88, the royal family sold much of their flatware to buy grain for the people, and themselves ate the cheap barley bread in order to be able to give more to the hungry. There were many other things they did; what I mentioned here is taken from Vincent Cronin's Louis and Antoinette, as well as Marguerite Jallut's and Philippe Huisman's biography of the Marie-Antoinette. The king and queen did not see helping the poor as anything extraordinary, but as a basic Christian duty. The royal couple's almsgiving stopped only with their incarceration in the Temple in August 1792, for then they had nothing left to give but their lives. Share

Americans Disapprove of Adultery

This article was just in the Wall Street Journal.

It is good to know we have some principles left. Share

Wedding Etiquette

Many people are planning their summer weddings now. I am a bridal consultant on the side and am always getting questions about the "do's and don't's." Here is a link to the Frugal Bride site which has a lot of sensible suggestions.

What is odd to me is that so many people are concerned about the social niceties but have no qualms about living together before marriage. I wish I could convince young couples that cohabitation is not a good idea and can hurt the marital relationship in the long run. Not to mention that cohabitation is sinful, gives scandal, and is not an adequate preparation for entering into the sacrament of matrimony. Parents and members of the older generation, who would never have "lived together" themselves, seem to look upon such arrangements very benignly and often do not speak up for what is right. When we try too hard to keep the peace by silent acquisition to wrong, we end by hurting the people we love. Share

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Moon River

We had not planned to watch Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) for our Saint Valentine's Day movie night. But when the song "Moon River" started playing on TCM, it was hard not to get caught up in the film. The opening scene has got to be one of the most haunting in film history, with Audrey Hepburn strolling down a Manhattan street at five o'clock in the morning, glamorously attired, a paper cup of coffee in hand, nibbling a pastry, while pausing to gaze longingly into the window of Tiffany's jewelry store. Never has anyone looked so lost.

Made at the dawn of the sexual revolution, the film captures the angst of modern life, with the all the loneliness, the frantic striving for wealth at any price, seeking in material pleasures a happiness which remains elusive. The "Holly Golightly" character, nimbly portrayed by Miss Hepburn, embodies the lifestyle of so many contemporary young women, sans the Givenchy gowns, in whose lives there have often been many lovers but very little true love. The George Peppard character, "Paul" the writer-gigolo, was shocking at the time the film debuted. He, too, like so many modern people, knows a lot about sex but nothing of love. He longs for love, nevertheless. Paul, like Holly, is trapped in a lifestyle from which there seems to be no escape. Hope is presented in the awakening of love, and the desire for commitment, from which Holly flees like a bird.

The film would be nothing without the Henry Mancini song "Moon River," written for Audrey's limited vocal range. Although the words speak of a youthful desire to see the world, when Audrey sings it, she captures a deeper level of meaning, an intense yearning for home, for a family setting that is no more. It is essentially a mourning of lost innocence. Holly had lost her innocence by age fourteen, when she married a man old enough to be her father; instead of being a much-needed parent, he became a lover, and perhaps that is what set her on the path to promiscuity. Underneath her carefree exterior, she is tormented at the very core of her being, as is demonstrated when she smashes up her apartment upon receiving the news that her only brother has died.

When hearing the song "Moon River" as a child, I always thought of the Monocacy River, not far from our house. It was a yellow muddy river due to the cow manure and silt from the fields, but on a summer night, beneath the glimmering of the moon, it became beautifully surreal, connoting the magic and mystery of places far away. How often the youthful longing to see the world is replaced with the nostalgia for home, after the world has been seen and tasted. There is no going back home, only going forward, while creating structures of stability for the new generation. Paul and Holly standing in the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany's, hugging a soggy cat, while a choir sings "Moon River" in the background, is almost like a gleam of promise. Amid the despair, depravity and chaos of modernity, a man and woman can still find each other, commit to each other, and build a life of meaning for themselves and for others.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Caroline of Naples, the Duchesse de Berry

Caroline of Naples is one of the main characters in my novel Madame Royale. She does not enter until the middle of the story, but then she upstages everyone else. She was high-spirited and much more like Marie-Antoinette than the queen's own daughter, Marie-Therese-Charlotte. Caroline was Marie-Antoinette’s grand-niece, her sister Queen Maria Carolina's granddaughter. The author Chateaubriand always flirted with her, calling her a "crazy, Italian tight-rope artist." She had a wonderful singing voice and could sing and play any operatic song after hearing it only once.

Caroline of Naples was known as the Duchesse de Berry from the time of her marriage to Berry in 1816. Caroline introduced sea-bathing to high society and it was considered quite scandalous. She also enjoyed window shopping and they named one of the first Parisian street-cars after her. In spite of her impetuous ways, she was quite popular with the French people. She was also a generous patroness of the arts and her charitable contributions usually exceeded her annual income. Berry was murdered before her eyes in February of 1820 and their son Henri “the Miracle Child” was born in September, 1820. Their country home was Rosny, where Caroline had a special chapel devoted to Berry's memory. When Berry was killed at the opera, Caroline said, "I have lost the only person in the world who can make me happy."

It is a very romantic story how she secretly married an Italian count Ettore de Lucchesi-Palli in Rome, and then went to Brittany to try to regain the throne for her son in 1832. She ended up hiding in a chimney in a farmhouse and almost was burned alive. She never lost her courage and her dignity, even during her imprisonment in the fortress of Blaye, where she was forced to give birth in front of the guards. In the 1830's, after her secret marriage, adventure in Brittany and pregnancy, she was stripped by Charles X of her royal title and was styled "Comtesse de Rosny." She and Marie-Therese-Charlotte always quarrelled, although the Duchesse d’Angouleme ended up raising Caroline's older children, Henri and Louise. The two sisters-in-law were eventually reconciled, and would spend their winters in Venice together, until Therese died in 1851.

Caroline’s second husband, Count Ettore de Lucchesi-Palli was a scion of one the first families of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He was also known as Prince of Campofranco, and later as Duke della Grazia. He and Caroline had a castle at Brunsee in Gratz, Austria, which is where she died in 1870.

Baroness Orczy of The Scarlet Pimpernel fame wrote a biography of Caroline, as did Andre Castelot. Imbert de Saint-Amand's The Duchesse de Berry and the Court of Charles X is loaded with intimate details of court life.

When she was taken prisoner after almost being burned alive, Caroline said, "I have done what a mother could to regain the inheritance of her son." Brave, foolish, feisty, headstrong, loveable Caroline, she would not give up.