All posts by Kasia I.

Kasia is a young lady striving to live out her Catholic faith as fully as she can. She enjoys writing, reading, singing, and having fun with friends. She welcomes your comments on her work.

Reflections of Reality

It’s interesting how one thing makes you think of another, and before you know it you have a fantastic and seemingly-non-connected chain of thoughts. A while ago, I was looking at the light of our living room lamps reflected in our old TV, and I started thinking about reflections. We see so many reflections of ourselves and the things around us: mirrors, replicas, selfies. Even life itself is reflected in facets like video games and social media. Technology has made it much easier to see reality in different ways and reflections. Most of these can border on the addictive to interact with. But why addictive?

The idea of virtual reality—a simulated reality—does have an allure. Perhaps it’s because virtual reality, a sort of copy of the world, seemingly offers a chance to have total control. Imagine if you knew that, no matter what happened, you would be secure with a command or a push of a certain button. You would be in a world molded around yourself for your own entertainment and excitement. And what a comfort to know that whatever would occur in a virtual reality, it would only be as real as you allow it to be!

Video games and social media can give virtual-reality-type experiences. Maybe that’s why they’re so dangerous. They offer experiences that we don’t physically encounter. They give only an illusion of control, control in events that don’t really happen. The lines between reality and unreality can be blurred, whatever lines exist.

In discussing this we can’t downplay the importance of good old-fashioned imagination. I’m a firm believer in imagination—but not in disconnection or limitation. Video games and the like are simply reflections of what our imaginations can think. They are pre-fabricated spaces for the mind to stay and occupy itself. Imposition of a limited, controlled circumstance such as a video game might make the mind satisfied with a mere reflection of what it could be capable.

Reflections can be used as a kind of escapism, as technology users often try to tweak their lives through their games and posts. They might actually have mediocre or miserable lives, but at least they can distract themselves with their performance on Temple Run, or with another follower joining the ranks. They can even regulate what others see or think about them, though this makes an incomplete reflection of who we really are as humans and how complex each of us is as a person.

With such technologies, users try to change their lives as to how they plan them. But humans’ plans can never come close to the perfection of God’s plans, plans whose wonder we could never be able to predict. Being preoccupied with mere reflections of God’s reality is an injustice to the original reality’s beauty, making people less attentive to it.

And nowadays, we don’t only see reflections of life—it’s now a game to see your own reflection distorted in unusual ways, such as in face swaps and makeup apps. The problem is when this sort of thing is taken too far. When people constantly see themselves as distorted, and not always as images and likenesses of God, then the real damage of reflections has been done.  

We all must make sure to see God’s beauty first before we look at the reflections. If we take care around possible traps and keep aware of the allure of unreality, we can even use reflections to reflect gazes back to God. But remember: technology and such are only a means, a possible extra enrichment to our personal work, growth, and evangelization.

Pilgrimage to Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish in Cincinnati

The moment we arrived at the imposing gate on the sidewalk and started to climb the flights of concrete steps, we could tell this wasn’t a characterless church. As we stood at the highest point in Cincinnati and admired the city spread out below us, eventually filing into the church after the dark wooden doors had been unlocked, our feeling of awe intensified.

“Welcome to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church.” Our tour guide stepped up after allowing our group a short period of prayer. “What was the first thing you noticed when you came in?”Holy_Cross-Immaculata_Church_(Cincinnati,_Ohio)_-_nave[1]

“We had to climb a lot of stairs to get here,” someone in our group pointed out. People laughed softly.

“It smells like our own church back home,” someone else observed. More laughter.

“Your church must be an old one, then,” our tour guide guessed, and, receiving nods in response, he went on. “This church was built in 1859, and it was started through an archbishop’s promise at sea.”

Bishop John Baptist Purcell of the Cincinnati, Ohio area had been traveling at sea when a large storm blew in. The bishop prayed, but the storm didn’t abate. The ship’s captain went so far as to ask everyone to prepare for death. At that time, Bishop Purcell promised God and Our Lady that if he survived the storm, he would build a church at the highest point in Cincinnati. The storm subsided and Bishop Purcell, praising God, returned to Cincinnati to fulfill his promise. He bought Mt. Adams, the highest point in Cincinnati, and used thousands of dollars of his own money (not parishioners’ money, as was customary) to build Immaculata Church.

mural_large[1] Immaculata Church was primarily a German immigrant parish and Bishop Purcell received a lot of support for his project from Germany and the Germans. Our tour guide gestured to the stunning oil paintings placed behind the side altars and main altar. “These were commissioned especially for Immaculata Church and were painted by a German, Johann Schmitt. The German ancestry of the church and artist can be seen on the painting behind the main altar.” The painting features a scroll bearing German words which translate to “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for the conversion of this country, America”.

“See the painting of the Annunciation there?” our tour guide continued, gesturing to the left side altar. “Can you see the faint outlines of a face between the Dove and the Blessed Virgin?” Everyone craned their necks, looking hard—a few people gasped “ahh” in recognition, while many others looked confused. Our tour guide smiled at our reactions. “Not everyone can make out the face. My theory is that the painter had a partially used canvas that he painted this scene over and the older painting shows through a little. Or, maybe he painted the face in on purpose. We don’t know for sure, but the face does bear a striking resemblance to Our Lord’s face on the Shroud of Turin.”

We went on to learn that while Immaculata Church was the German immigrants’ primary parish, the nearby Holy Cross Church was attended mostly by Irish immigrants. But when events and finances determined otherwise, the decision was made in 1977 to close Holy Cross Church and merge the two parishes under the structure of the Immaculata Church. Naturally, the Irish were upset. Holy_Cross-Immaculata_Church_(Cincinnati,_Ohio)_-_statue_of_St._Patrick[1]While they had to submit to the change, one thing they wanted was to keep the statue of St. Patrick from the closing Holy Cross Church. Irish parishioners approached the pastor and asked if they could transfer the statue to Immaculata. “I’m sorry, I can’t authorize that,” the priest told them. “But maybe it’ll happen that I’ll forget to lock the doors of Holy Cross tonight.” The doors were left unlocked when parishioners checked them that night. And so it was that the St. Patrick statue from Holy Cross was taken away at 2 a.m. in the morning and brought to the new church, Immaculata.

This in turn led to an interesting tradition. Every year, the Irish would “break” into the newly-named Holy Cross-Immaculata church at night, carry out the St. Patrick statue, and parade him around the streets in a pickup truck. The parish priest tolerated this, but when St. Patrick returned to the church with bright pink-painted shoes one year and an arm broken in a bar fight another year, the pastor put his foot down. Now the Irish have bought their own statue to parade around the streets of Cincinnati every year.

The story transitioned from the St. Patrick statue to the windows above him. “Most of the side windows are the originals,” our tour guide noted. “We also have a beautiful rose window in the back of the church, just recently installed.” Everyone turned to see, but the massive organ blocked the full view of the window lit by the sun. “You can’t see the whole window from the inside because of the organ, which is also relatively new to the church. For the dedication of the organ, the parish had a special Mass with an operatic soprano. She sang ‘Ave Maria’.” Our guide paused. “They say there wasn’t a dry eye in the church.”

mount-adams-steps-leading-to-holy-cross-immaculata-church-cincinnati-CBTW06[1]And the stairs leading up to Immaculata? “Every Good Friday,” we were told, “thousands of people come here to pray the Rosary while ascending the steps up the mountain on their knees. It’s a devotional practice that’s been going on for generations.”

After hearing the history of the church, we were free to walk around. We lit votive candles at the Lady of Lourdes grotto replica in the back of the church. We ran our fingers over the velvet curtains of the old confessionals. We inspected the famous statue of St. Patrick. (You could see faint streaks of pink paint on his shoes showing through the gold they’d used to paint over it.) We looked to see the face in the painting and knelt at the side altars.

The visit climaxed with Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. As everyone was leaving afterwards, my friend Mary and I stood in the side aisle of the church, soaking in the beauty all around us. Mary glanced back at the choir loft. “I’d love to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ in this church like the soprano did,” she whispered to me.

“Do you want to? Let’s do it,” I said.

Quietly we sang the chant, the song gently filling the church. It was a hymn to Our Lady, showing our reverence for her in a church named for her, a place filled with the history of 150 years of a church well-loved.

 

(I would like to express my sincere thanks to our tour guide, Jim. Not all the words are direct quotes; l took the liberty to reword what I couldn’t precisely remember, though the content is the same. I double-checked the information for this article with help of the parish website– http://hciparish.org/ . Any inaccuracies I might have made in this article are entirely my own.)

Try Not To Obsess

I tend to obsess over certain things or situations. I spent a day at Cedar Point a couple weeks ago. Around lunchtime, I stepped into a cutesy pastel-colored establishment set up to look like a fifties diner. After waiting in line for fifteen minutes, I ordered a cheeseburger and waited five more minutes before the sandwich that I had paid eight dollars for was slapped on the counter in front of me. It was flat, devoid of the lettuce and tomato that the billboard had promised, and tasted nothing like a proper hamburger at all. I ended up having to throw the sandwich remains away when I couldn’t stand shoveling it into my mouth any longer.

I was completely disgusted with the way I’d been gypped. My family eventually became tired of me mentioning the expensive “hamburger-that-was-not-a-hamburger” episode. “Six times already you’ve told us,” they said.

“But I was cheated,” I said.

“Just let it go,” they replied.

Though I didn’t want to admit it, I knew they were right. I tend to obsess over things gone wrong. In this case, would my rants have changed anything? My ranting only stirred up my feelings, forcing me to think about the situation and making me feel worse than before.

Such overreaction from overthinking is not uncommon, but it’s usually not a good or profitable thing. Most of us can relate to not being able to stop thinking about something unpleasant that has happened. Those of us who are sensitive especially tend to overthink things, especially bad occurrences. I find myself overthinking, whether it be through fear or disgust, during times of spiritual disturbances and temptations; there can often be that discouraging thought, that ugly image, that uncomfortable situation, or that disturbing dream which refuses to leave easily and seems to haunt the mind. It provokes a fear of evil which can be hard to get over.

But when I focus on the terribleness of certain imaginings or circumstances, I find myself becoming even more disturbed than before. When we obsess over our fear, the enemy has power over us. We allow these bad happenings to disturb our internal peace, and the enemy is pleased if he can accomplish at least that much in a holy person.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

~St. Theresa of Avila

Instead of dwelling on your temptations and misfortunes, think of God. Picture His Face, not the face of the aggravations you deal with. Turn to Him and think about Him, beg Him for the strength you need to overcome any evil in your life. Let God command your thoughts and everything in your life will follow His order. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27). With Christ’s peace, the things the world puts forth will be powerless to aggravate you, whether they be unpleasant thoughts or subpar hamburgers, and the temptation to obsess over these occurrences will subside.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

 

(The article below contains a few minor spoilers. Continue only if you don’t mind or have already seen the film!)

Yet another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and yet again stores and the Internet are bursting with promotional materials. It seems that nearly everywhere we turn we come across another image of Captain America and Iron Man facing each other down, their profiles staring majestically and stubbornly across from each other in front of a backdrop of Cap’s now-familiar shield. I don’t usually see movies in theaters the day of their release. In fact, I usually wait until they become available at the library. But somehow it happened that at 7:30 on the evening of May 6th I found myself wearing 3D glasses in a comfortable theater seat, waiting for the commercials to finish and Captain America: Civil War to begin.

I thought a review of Civil War would be an appropriate follow-up to my last article (which discussed Captain America’s character). In a nutshell: I liked the movie insofar as one can like a Marvel movie, but I also found it saddled with the deficiencies of the typical Marvel movie.

captain-america-civil-war[1]
Stark and Rogers
First of all, I grant that the major question the storyline posed was an interesting one; in this time when the religious liberty of Americans is being endangered, the free will to make our own decisions that Captain America desires and want to protect is important. Captain America/Steve Rogers doesn’t feel like he can submit to an unpredictable government ruling when he has the power to help people in trouble. However, the position of accountability that Iron Man/Tony Stark promotes is also important. Finally, the public and the Avengers seem to be taking notice of the destruction that the superheroes have always wreaked in their scuffles.

One thing that seemed strange to me about the issue, however, was that Rogers never puts into words a really substantial reason for his decision not to sign the controversial Sokovia Accords, which would put Avengers operations under the discretion of the UN. Throughout most of the movie, Rogers simply repeats that he “can’t” sign the Accords. The danger in Cap’s point of view comes when we see our decisions as made solely because of trust in our own judgment and not considering a higher order and moral code. Cap’s position has been characterized dangerously as simply a matter of his “individual conscience”, what “he believes to be right”. This secularizes and weakens Cap’s position, while making Tony Stark appear to be the voice of reason.

Another question—why exactly were the Avengers fighting each other? Yes, the issue was a meaningful one, but I’m sure there are better ways to resolve it than beating each other up. If their intention never was to kill each other, what was the intention of the fighting? Was it perhaps the first instinct to which they turned? But was it a mature way to solve a problem? I did appreciate the storyline leading up to the fighting because I had been afraid that the film might be a meaningless fight-fest. Still, the violent scenes (as they commonly are) are painful and overdrawn.

Even before the film I hadn’t liked the idea of superhero fighting superhero. To my mind, superheroes should be role models, fighting evil for the triumph of the good and true. It seems a bit askew if the champions of good end up fighting each other. However, a possible interpretation could be that Marvel focuses more on the flawed humanity of the heroes than their perfection; it tries to portray the heroes as more realistic and nuanced.

captain-america-civil-war-civil-war-captain[1]
Cap and Bucky
However, it would make the Marvel movies much better if we could actually see more of this human dimension of the characters. The Marvel movies seem to focus more on negative emotions and impulses—revenge, violence, hate. We do see examples of love, but often in regards to revenge, such as Black Panther’s love for his father which drives him to seek revenge on his father’s murderer. We see camaraderie among the Avengers, but it is lacking. Consider Rogers’s strangely frigid welcome to his friend Bucky when Barnes finally recovers from his brainwashing. Even after Rogers learns that Barnes is in his right mind, instead of greeting his old friend with a smile or a warm handshake, Rogers proceeds to immediately bombard Barnes with questions. This cold humanity reaches to Cap’s strange romance with Sharon Carter, Peggy Carter’s niece—their relationship is unconvincingly portrayed, not giving much grounds for the kiss they share (after which Carter is faded out of the story).

Which brings me to my disappointment in the character of Captain America. In Civil War he seems to be lacking in the good spirit and selflessness which he shows in Captain America: The First Avenger. He is supposed to be a representation of America, but we never see him being particularly patriotic towards his country. And more generally, Civil War is more about a disagreement among the Avengers than a film about Cap and a further exploration of his character. Though the movie bears Cap’s name, the focus of the film is not truly on him as Iron Man plays just as large a part in it as Captain America.

The end of the film is inconclusive, a typical “teaser” ending. Yes, I suppose the filmmakers need audiences to keep coming back for more but all the ends are left open, so the next film can hand us more surprises we mightn’t (or might) have expected. But it’s almost as if the filmmakers have forgotten the art of crafting a true, satisfying ending. Speaking for myself, sometimes the audience doesn’t want to be kept guessing. Sometimes the audience wants to be contented with the story. The ending-that-is-not-an-ending seems particularly inappropriate for the supposed concluding film of the Captain America trilogy.

Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t cringing in my seat all throughout Civil War. There are several jokes that viewers, especially long-time fans and watchers of the Marvel movies, appreciate. Superheroes abound to delight nearly any fan. The introduction of the young Peter Parker/Spider-Man, in particular, adds an innocence and charm that is refreshing in the darkly intense Marvel world. The heart-wrenching revelation near the climax adds a twist delivering an impactful surprise. When going to see Captain America: Civil War, you might expect to be amused, and maybe even thought-provoked, just don’t necessarily expect to be awestruck.

“Too Perfect”?…Striving for Virtue

A while ago, I and a couple others were talking animatedly about the upcoming release of some highly-anticipated superhero movies. I mentioned Captain America (one of my personal favorites, however trite the movies he appears in are becoming).

“Oh, Captain America,” one of the girls said, waving a hand dismissively. “He’s too perfect. I like Spider-Man. He has actual human faults.”

I was a bit miffed. Besides the extremely sensible reason that Captain America should be good because he represents our country (my point of view, anyway), I didn’t concur with my friend’s judgment. I didn’t regard Captain America to be “too perfect”. He did some things which I didn’t agree with and made some decisions that didn’t seem to be ideal. But I think I understood what my friend saw in Captain America because it was something that annoyed me in other characters. To her, Captain America was a goody-goody and compared to the flamboyant Spider-Man, he certainly can be seen that way. But could it be that anyone could be “too perfect”?

“Too perfect”. “Disgustingly virtuous”. “Annoyingly cheerful”. How often have we heard or coined phrases like these? How can it be that the qualities which should be most attractive to people are so off-putting to so many?

First of all, we should draw a distinction between the sincere and the superficial. I have encountered my fair share of intolerably sanctimonious characters—especially of the angelic, dutiful-child type often found in nineteenth-century children’s moral stories. Many of these types of characters were created for the sole purpose of teaching a moral and thus are decidedly one-sided and artificial. They have no further interest once they have taught their lesson to the reader. Another flaw in angelic-type characters is often their own unrealistic behaviors and impacts on others. For example, Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while not as unbearable as some other characters, smacks slightly of this—she is a perfect child, sympathetic and kind to all, and everyone seems to come to her with their problems and their praises. And of course, when we get into those characters such as Tom Sawyer’s half-brother Sid who are well-behaved only because of the superiority it gives them over others, the question is not about surface virtue but about underlying pride.

But normally, are we right to reject characters merely because of their piousness? To shed light on the issue, think for a minute about the saints, whom many people can’t stand. The saints were those people who seemed to have everything figured out, who were always obedient, cheerful, and prayerful. In short, they succeeded where many of us have failed. Thus, many of our problems with “perfect” characters and saints come from an acknowledged or unacknowledged jealousy. Don’t we wish we were the person whom everyone admires and holds up as an example? Often the root of our dislike comes from a particular trait, which we then try to belittle. Those people who seem to be always calm and collected, for example, I tend to decry as being “emotionless”. Those who are always obedient and respectful to those in authority over them, I tend to view as “flatterers”.

You see, we often try to pull down those whom we can look up to. We don’t want anyone to be better than ourselves. Or at least, we want assurance that we are doing “pretty well” compared to everyone else. If we fail, we would like everyone else to fail, like the dog in the fable: the dog who tries to prevent the other barn animals from using hay, just because he is unlucky enough not to be able to enjoy hay himself.

When we are confronted with stories of virtuous people, then, we should ask ourselves exactly why they seem to grate on our nerves. Is it because of some lack of skill of the author or storyteller? Is it because of some false reason to hold this person up as an example? Or is it because this person reveals a facet of our own inadequacy to ourselves in a way we would rather not be reminded?

Because the truth is that we do need heroes. We need people to look up to and admire and imitate. We need to learn to accept the good in others without feeling jealous or—from the other end of the spectrum—overly frustrated about ourselves. And the truth is that, when we take the time to notice, many of the characters we may find annoying are actually delightfully human. Captain America, for instance, has felt pain. He has felt the suffering of losing nearly everything from his life. He gets hungry, thirsty, and tired. He goes through temptations and lapses in his own judgment. He has sympathy for his fellow humans. All these qualities make him relatable as a person; he is definitely not alien.

The same goes for the saints. While the holiest of them did not succumb to temptation as often as most other people, they had human qualities and personality flaws. They suffered. They endured temptation. The Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, suffered in ways we can only imagine but suffered like we do nonetheless. So did her Son, who became man for us. Even He hungered and thirsted in the desert and on the cross. We can look up to others for their holiness or their good qualities while not feeling completely separate from them.

It’s especially important to appreciate our heroes and good role models in this day, when the typical celebrity is into drugs, drinking, and other pursuits which could scarcely be called worthy of emulation. Mainstream characters of the Captain America sort should be well-appreciated–may there be more popular characters like them! For holier role models (and, even better, real ones), we look to the saints, both those canonized and those in our daily lives. For there is no need to be disgusted with virtue when that virtue is true.

 

On the Suffering of Christ

Maybe you can remember some of the most unpleasant feelings in your life.

Heat so scorching that your skin burns, your head throbs, and any water you drink is a poison instead of a cure.

Pain so intense that you remain suspended and twisted in an agony of body and ineffectiveness of mind.

Humiliation so complete that though you feel it is unbearable, you still have to live with its crushing mockery.

Grief so deep that it reaches to rack your body as well as your soul.

Fatigue so entire that you seem disembodied and stumble with your own weight.

Remember the worst time you’ve ever had to endure any one of these distresses. Multiply that suffering thousands of times upon itself, and you would still not be close to what He felt. You would still not be able to completely imagine what He endured. The suffering He endured included the sins of every single sinner, not simply the suffering of one man. And everything He endured was for you, no matter how you have hurt Him; every last ounce of His suffering, He bore, because He loves you so dearly.

Picture Him. Sharp thorns pressed into the soft flesh of His head. Rivulets of blood flowing, trickling down from the gouges in His flesh. Gory skin hanging loosely around Him in tatters. And through all the heat of Calvary, the pain of wounds, the humiliation of derision, the grief of rejection, the fatigue of the heavy cross—His eyes never lose their love for you.

For this is the Love with which His Heart burned.

 

The Negativity Fast

In the time of an explosion of suggestions of what to do for Lent, I put forth yet another idea: the “negativity fast”. The negativity fast consists of refraining from saying anything negative for the duration of your choosing. Forbidden negativity includes, but is not limited to, complaints, pessimism, criticism, and even ostensibly harmless sarcasm. When it was first suggested to me, the idea of a negativity fast (especially the thought of refraining from sarcasm) seemed slightly terrifying. One girl told me that she would be willing to go on a negativity “diet”, but she didn’t think she could do a full-blown “fast”. Not being the most cheerful of persons, I decided that I probably needed to work on reducing my negativity output (I had been driving my family crazy with my darkly sarcastic comments). I declared that I would fast from negativity of all sorts for a month.

I failed. By the last week of the allotted month, I was constantly forgetting about the negativity fast. However, though I was not determined enough to finish it, I did take away some valuable lessons from it.

One thing that helped me was the support of friends. Two of my friends decided to do the negativity fast together with me, and with our collective encouragement and shared experiences we went pretty far. In fact, it was only when I stopped talking to my friends about the fast that I forgot about it. There is much to be said for the accountability that friends can provide during periods of sacrifice and struggle towards improvement.

The hardest aspect of the negativity fast was probably remembering that I was doing it. Many 9f us often spout negative words unthinkingly. I had to constantly remind myself that I was supposed to be refraining from such speech. The ease of speaking negatively opened my eyes to how I don’t even realize half the times I am unkind.

Besides the impulsive habit of speaking negatively, I was continually tempted during the month to say something negative despite the fast. In our culture, acerbic sarcasm and even rudeness is often seen as clever. We see such behavior applauded in movies, books, and social media. The wish to be seen as the witty originator of a snappy comment (whether or not the comment actually was clever) often overcame the better part of me which warned, “That comment is hurtful, and you’re on a negativity fast.”

The fast also helped me realize not only how negative I am towards others, but how negative I am towards myself. Too often, I found myself saying “idiot” to myself under my breath, usually over something of trivial importance. A mindset that seems to be common is that while it is rude to speak of others negatively, it is somehow acceptable to denigrate yourself. But it’s not—you are a child of God and deserve all the respect which others deserve from you.

Of course, we are to be positive all the time, but sometimes it’s beneficial to spend some time focusing specifically on rooting out negativity. In view of the benefits I gleaned from it, I’ve been thinking of trying the negativity fast again, perhaps for a shorter period of time…maybe a week. And what better time to try again than Lent?

The “I’m ‘More Catholic’ Than You Are…” Problem

I will be the first to admit that I love knowing (often useless) bits of information. Trivia games excite me, as I like to impress people with my knowledge. Who doesn’t enjoy looking intelligent? However, just as I can get prideful over the facts that I know, many of us Catholics can get prideful over the devotions we know about or follow. And just as I sometimes don’t comprehend how the facts I know fit into the grand scheme of things, sometimes Catholics don’t realize that their faith is so much more than they take it for.

Catholics who have been raised faithfully can occasionally become caught in pride. Many of us have had this pride at some time or another, to a greater or lesser degree; sometimes we don’t even realize that we have it. We can become proud of our faith, which is a good thing, but we can also become proud of it without fully understanding it, which is not a good thing. Then we sometimes start looking down on those whom we deem “less holy” than ourselves. “So, you haven’t memorized St. Gertrude’s prayer for the souls in Purgatory? Well,” I might say with a knowing smirk, “I have.” Whether I mean to or not, I’m hinting that I’m a better Catholic than you are, forgetting that I’m not the judge and that Catholicism is not something that is measured by degrees.

Just labeling yourself as “Catholic” is not going deep enough. Just being proud of the fact that you know the St. Gertrude’s prayer, or wear the brown scapular, or pray a daily novena, isn’t helping you if you don’t truly understand why you perform these actions. These devotions are to help us get to Heaven and grow closer to God, and if we don’t understand this then they are of small use to us. If we don’t carry out these devotions seriously and with all our hearts, we’re not accomplishing that for which they are meant.

Also, viewing the Catholic Faith simply as if it is some sort of “cool club” with cool stuff for cool people is not appreciating Catholicism’s inestimable value. It’s superficially treating something that is sacred and beautiful. It’s comparable to someone simply waving a hand and saying dismissively, “oh, that’s kind of cool,” when he hears a heart-wrenching movement of music or sees the ocean at sunset. Christ died for us, and we are His children. That is something to be proud of and something to be taken seriously.

So don’t just advertise yourself as Catholic. Don’t just say the words about how much you love being Catholic. Truly live your Catholic faith in your deeds as well as your words, so that people can see it and love you and God for it. We should not become too caught up in what we know and look down on those who might not have performed specific devotions or heard of specific saints. We should instead focus on deepening our faith and growing together in love of God.

Oplatki and Christmas Traditions

Every year my family eats a special Polish Christmas Eve dinner. We start at the traditional moment, which is right after spotting the first star in the night sky. We leave the customary extra place setting at the table to welcome any stranger who might visit (in case you wonder, in all the years we’ve done this there has never been such a one yet). The dinner contains no meat, dairy, or alcohol. Our meal, while not strictly following the traditional menu—as youngsters, my siblings and I even preferred Jell-O and peanut butter and jelly to the customary Polish fare—is mostly made up of different types of fish (herring, carp) prepared all kinds of ways (baked, fried, smoked). In addition to all of this, there is another tradition we follow on Christmas Eve: the Polish tradition of the oplatek.

The oplatek custom originated many centuries ago and became popular among the Polish nobility in times past. The oplatek (pronounced “oh-pwa-tek” and spelled “oplatki” in plural) has become somewhat known in the United States since several Eastern European immigrants brought the tradition over to their new country. Oplatki are thin, blessed wafers made of flour and water. They are usually white, though I have also seen them in tints of pale pink and green. On the surface of each oplatek is stamped a picture or a scene, usually of the Nativity, the Holy Family, or the Star of Bethlehem. Before Christmas Eve dinner, each family member receives one oplatek wafer. Every person then goes around the table to break off and share from every other person’s oplatek, forgiving any wrongs committed during the year and individually wishing everyone all the best for Christmastide and the New Year.

The significance of the custom is the recognition of the significance of the family. We dedicate this time every year to specifically ensuring good relationships within our family. By breaking oplatki together, we also imitate the breaking of bread in the Christian community on a smaller scale. Such holiday traditions, oplatki or otherwise, are important to bring family members together and remind them of their unity and dependence on each other.

The Holy Family depended on each other as well. The Christ Child depended on His mother for all of His basic necessities and on St. Joseph for safety and shelter. Mary depended on St. Joseph for stability and he on her for wisdom, peace, and trust. Both the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph depended on Jesus Christ for humility, mercy, and grace. Traditions like the Polish oplatek help families to model their inter-dependence, just like the Holy Family.

What are some up-building Christmas traditions that you and your families share?

Evangelizing With Joy

“Preach the Gospel, and when necessary use words.”

We live in a time when many people spend most of their lives in stressful and often-dull routines. Most people’s lives are also racked with troubles from familial tensions to personal depression. Just take a walk down the street and count how many people smile or even bother to look at you. A couple of my friends and I were talking recently, and we all agreed that there is a lack of joy in our society. “If you go to the supermarket,” one of my friends observed, “people look so miserable. And it’s like their miserable faces are their normal ones.”

Sadly, many people in our secular world have lost the joy of knowing God. We all often try to cover internal emptiness with superficialities that don’t work and never will. But as Catholics, we have the duty to be channels of Christ’s love and true happiness to the world. Showing the happiness which results from love of God is a means to attract more people to the true joy of loving Him.

The saints are those people who evangelized with the glow of the joy which everyone wants. For example, St. Philip Neri is known as the saint of laughter-  he played with children in the streets of Rome and gave repentants ludicrous penances in the confessional. Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati liked to laugh at his own practical jokes. St. Rose of Lima wrote songs and could often be heard singing in her garden. The teenager Bl. Chiara Badano was known for her cheerfulness even as she lay dying with disease. St. Pio of Pietrelcina advised us to “serve the Lord with laughter.” In fact, if you look at a photo of any saintly person, chances are that he or she is smiling. This joy of Christ is what makes holy people so compelling and wonderful to be around.

Smiling is one way to show this joy. I know that “keep smiling” may sound cliché or even insignificant. But often people smile only with their mouths and not their eyes, and when sincerity is gone the worth of the smile is gone, too. A truly sincere smile can open hearts like few other actions can. (Besides, it’s more practical—a smile uses fewer facial muscles than a frown.)

Another often-overlooked, yet quite natural, way to express joy is music. I sometimes feel a bit wistful when I watch old movies or read old books and see what good times people had singing and dancing in the evenings. Now, singing and dancing in public is rarely seen, or it’s labeled as “weird”. However, music is something that practically everyone can understand and it is a way of praising God and expressing joy with our voices and bodies. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to leave the music to only the ultra-talented musicians. I don’t.)

I haven’t lost hope that we can express our joy and spread it in the world, as I see examples of others doing this so well. I see joy in the way my friend can harmonize beautifully to music without even realizing she’s doing it. I see joy in the way another of my friends often starts swing dancing spontaneously. I see joy in the way even a stranger can laugh happily and lift the spirits of those around. I see joy in the many random smiles I’ve received and remembered over the years.

“Let anyone who comes to you go away feeling better and happier. Everyone should see goodness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile. Joy shows from the eyes. It appears when we speak and walk. It cannot be kept closed inside us. It reacts outside. Joy is very infectious.” – Mother Teresa

If someone truly has love for God, it will shine through him and refract in various outward ways—whether smiling, laughing, singing, or dancing—without him even trying. Nearly all people are delighted with kindness and cheer, and react quite favorably to it. Accordingly, we don’t always have to do something spectacular to evangelize. Sometimes we just have to smile, and often that is enough to pass on Christ’s joy.

Tidbits from St. Therese: Anecdotes, Books, and Prayer

When I was little, I decided that I was going to take a new and unusual saint for my confirmation patron. I wanted to stand out from the crowd and show off my knowledge of hagiography at the same time. But when confirmation time did come, I didn’t know how I could choose anyone other than my sister in Heaven, St. Therese of Lisieux. I wouldn’t stand out—about half of the girls I know chose St. Therese as their confirmation patron—but a relationship was more important to me than a name. From an early age I had read about St. Therese- I was attracted by her self-sacrificing humility (which was something I definitely needed) and struck by her genuine love for God and everyone around her. She is especially famous for her “little way”, a path to sainthood. Last week, October 1st, was the feast day of St. Therese, and this post is in remembrance of her.

St. Therese anecdotes

Many people now know the story of the little girl who entered the convent at 15 and, despite her early death, lived a life filled with love. I always enjoy learning more about her, and hearing some of the lesser-known stories from her time on earth.

  • St. Therese was baptized Marie Therese Francois, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Theresa of Avila, and St. Francis Xavier. Therese was never able to fulfill her wish to be a missionary in foreign lands like her patron St. Francis Xavier. But today, she and he are the patron saints of the missions.
  • St. Therese admired St. Joan of Arc and even wrote a play about her life. Therese herself acted in the title role.

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    St. Therese as Joan of Arc
  • Eclairs were a favorite treat of St. Therese (who had a sweet tooth). They weren’t served in the convent, though, and Therese ate whatever was given to her.
  • St. Therese went to Rome to ask the Pope for permission to enter the Carmelite convent at an earlier age than usual. She was told not to speak to the Pope, but her resolve to enter the convent was so great that she did. In fact, Therese had to be dragged from the audience room when she wouldn’t stop pleading with the Pope for her intention.
  • “Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” St. Therese once said that even picking up a pin off the floor could save a soul, if it was done with love for God. She would offer up every small thing this way. When Therese was once erroneously blamed for breaking a vase, she offered it up and asked for forgiveness rather than try to correct opinions.
  • One story from near the end of St. Therese’s life is (I think) very typical of her. As Therese lay in bed, she often suffered too much pain to sleep, so she prayed silently instead. One of the sisters asked her what she talked to Jesus about during these times. Therese replied, “Nothing. I just love Him.”
  • The Story of a Soul, St. Therese’s autobiography, was alternatively titled by her as The Story of the Springtime of a Little White Flower. It was written under obedience, and Therese would not have had it otherwise. In fact, she advised another of the nuns against writing memoirs, saying, “You cannot do it without permission…It is more humble not to write anything about oneself.”

But under obedience, St. Therese’s book was written, and so many more were written after her death that people of nearly every age group can be introduced to St. Therese.

Books about St. Therese

  1. “Catholic Treasure Box” series, edited by the Maryknoll Sisters- For children ages around 3-8, with crafts, stories, and poems. In the beginning of the first six issues are simple stories about St. Therese.
  2. The Little Flower by Mary Fabyan Windeatt- For ages 7+, this biography of St. Therese is told in first person, similarly to her autobiography.
  3. Olivia and the Little Way by Nancy Carabio Belanger- Written for tweens. The story is about Olivia, a girl who builds a friendship with St. Therese amid the challenges of her new school.
  4. The Story of a Soul– St. Therese’s autobiography. Its sweetness and profoundness in its simplicity have made this book a Catholic classic, and its author is now beloved around the world. (There are also several letters and poems of St. Therese which are easily available to read through an Internet search.)
  5. I Believe in Love by Fr. Jean d’Elbee- Wonderful spiritual reading for teens and adults, this is an insightful discussion of love, humility, faith, and more, highly influenced by St. Therese’s “little way”.

Prayer to St. Therese

rnimagesFor me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward Heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

Many are also familiar with Therese’s promise that after her death, she would “let fall from Heaven a shower of roses”. The novena to St. Therese, to be prayed every consecutive day for nine days, is quite powerful. When you pray it for a specific intention, St. Therese will sometimes send roses your way to assure you. Now even when I am not praying the novena, seeing a rose makes me smile and think of her.

I encourage all of you to pray for the intercession of St. Therese in your lives and get to know her better. I know that she will help you and me, as she has helped many others, to approach sanctity and a more perfect love of God.

 

 

Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder

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Piet Mondrian, from “Tableau 2”

Recently, I attended a talk about beauty. After asking his listeners about various things that they found beautiful (stars, music, the ocean), the speaker—a priest—presented us with online images of two works of art: an abstract composition by Piet Mondrian and the Transfiguration by Raphael. “Tell me which you think is more beautiful,” he said.

Although geometry and order are wonderful things, we all agreed that we didn’t find Mondrian’s work particularly pleasing. “All right, let’s change this up,” our speaker said, replacing Mondrian’s collection of rectangles and squares with an Afremovian splash of color. Comparing Leonid Afremov’s modern-impressionist rain scene with Raphael’s Renaissance work, he asked us again, “Now which do you think is more beautiful?

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Leonid Afremov, “Street of the Old Town”

After a moment of scrutiny, a girl in front of me pointed to the Afremov. “I like this one,” she declared.

“Why?” the priest asked her.

“Well,” considered the girl, “It deals with the subject more originally. I feel like there are a lot of other paintings that look like Raphael’s.”

Her friend sitting next to her agreed. “I love rain,” she said, “and I love color. So looking at this painting makes me happy.”

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Raphael, “Transfiguration”

“I still think Raphael’s is more beautiful,” another listener quickly pointed out. “It shows a much deeper meaning than the other painting.”

Both parts of the argument had legitimate points. Beauty can be a difficult thing to discuss. During our comparison of the two paintings, we made several observations about beauty in art.

One of our more confusing questions was that if beauty comes from God, how can one thing be more beautiful to some people than others? There were people who enjoyed Afremov’s painting, but others couldn’t stand it. Can beauty be subjective?

It’s true that everyone has different personalities, preferences, and even memories that will influence how they see things. For example, though my personality may make me apt to grumble about rainy days, the girl’s friend in the discussion above may have happy memories of playing outside when it rained. Or she might make some connections, such as that between rainfall and God’s grace, which I might fail to make. As a result, she may have liked Afremov’s painting more than I did. Each of us is created to be wonderfully unique, and thus we might see different elements of beauty in different things.

That having been said, beauty is not just a personal preference. The concept of beauty should be kept separate from that of simply attractiveness. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that how truly beautiful something is depends in part on how well it expresses its essence, the truth of what it is. Our speaker also observed that truth, which comes from the indivisible God, is interconnected with beauty, which comes from the same indivisible God. So there is a certain objectivity about beauty, which we can take into consideration when looking at art. In the context of our art comparison, the Transfiguration’s style and subject matter bring our thoughts more directly to God than does Afremov’s portrayal of creation.

A brief note on medium. As implied above, how the subject matter is portrayed is significant to artwork’s beauty. Raphael’s exquisite rendering of nature and the human body add to his work’s loveliness and makes it easier to appreciate his subject. In fact, if art with a beautiful subject matter isn’t very pleasing, it’s probably because of the artist’s own failure to express its beauty and point viewers to God.

Finally, it’s very important to consider the effect of novelty. Many times I’ve highly enjoyed a film after watching it for the first time. But after a few run-throughs, I can see deficiencies in plot and acting, and find that the jokes I thought were funny are actually somewhat flat. This can be applied to art as well—don’t rely too much on first impressions. While we might not get particularly tired of looking at Afremov’s composition, someday we will probably run out of meaning to extract from it. On the other hand, Raphael’s Transfiguration skillfully depicts a sublime scene with connections to several stories and truths. The Transfiguration of Christ is a divine mystery, and so there is an indefinite amount of understanding to glean from it. The girl who found Raphael’s painting unoriginal at first may find that the more thoughtfully she looks at it, the more it will lead her to contemplate its divine subject, God, who is Beauty itself.

So which work did we decide to call more beautiful? For many reasons we generally came to agree that this title belonged to Raphael’s painting. But if you didn’t want to commit, you could always take the side of the religious sister in Father’s audience who, on being asked which painting was more beautiful, always said, “Both.”