Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Brains and Career Choices

Two good friends of mine have surprised in recent months me by asserting quite forcefully that I am smarter than they are.  It's not that I disagree with the assessment; it's more that I'm bewildered by how they came up with enough data to make such a claim (in both cases, I feel quite certain that I lack the evidence necessary to evaluate such a claim).

Out here, too, I am widely regarded as being very bright.  Now, I'm accustomed to being regarded as being highly competent, because good, efficient work speaks for itself.  But I've not been here very long, and I don't feel that my brain muscles have been stretched in a way that would be observable to others. It's not like I've been the center of attention (well, perhaps my fashion, but much less my conversation),  and I haven't been around for many intellectual discussions (I'm quieter out here than you'd probably expect).

Don't get me wrong; I know I'm clearly an intellectual, and that does come across to people (hence why most of my friends from Spirit and Truth expect me to write a book someday).  What really baffles me is how other intellectual friends can so easily assign me a slot above them in that great mental hierarchy of intelligence.  (Not that I don't mark out other friends as geniuses myself, but that's usually only after I've had some sort of intellectual background with them...)

But let's take this supposition and run with it.  So I'm smart.  Smarter than most people.  (Certainly logical thinking is a good beginning that's lacked by most Americans.)  I realized tonight that perhaps my own intelligence is the trap behind my unfortunate Jansenistic tendency of separating my faith from others' reason.

See, I know that faith is reasonable, especially ours (well, to a point, anyway).  And I've heard all the philosophical arguments for faith; they all make sense, but I find none of them to be quite compelling enough.  So I don't get into philosophical arguments about religion, unless it's with people who are coming from the same philosophical playing field as I'm on.

So I've learned, over time, to explain my education and life plans in such a way that they make sense and sound reasonable and nonthreatening (if a bit bizarre) to religiously apathetic people.  My passion remains invisible (though implied), but I'm okay with that; sometimes that's how it's gotta be.

Well. Tonight I was in a social situation with mostly areligious peers, strangers.  So naturally, the first conversation opener is to ask about work or school, and I run through my usual spiel, receiving the usual polite-but-not-particularly-interested responses.

And then it hit me: My intellectual gifts are near-completely hidden in such a situation.  Sure, my social competencies play out nicely, but these people first meeting me will likely place me in a mental bin with people of lesser intelligence than they have, simply because I value religion.

Perhaps that's why I feel like universalizing my life's ambitions is just dumbing them down: because speaking in such a way fails to bear witness to the glorious reasonability of our faith.  And that reasonability so desperately needs to be borne witness to.

And maybe it's just the nonconfrontational people-pleaser in me that only wants to engage with those people who positively want to have religious discussions.  But you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  And while you might have fewer buyers at first if you leave the honey loose, it'll last longer and be better kept if you seal it in a jar and open it only at the appropriate time.

Peddling honey is somebody's role.  I just think mine is more like serving tea and waiting for my guests to ask for it.

And yes, Luke, I did title this post just for you.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Delight

Delight in the Lord is a principle and a virtue clearly lauded all over the Scriptures. But searching through Holy Writ for references to my delight in Him instead directs me to reminders of His delight in me.

This delight, of our God in His people, is usually demonstrated, at least in the Old Testament, by some sort of physically measurable gift: prosperity, victory in battle, kingship, good crops, etc. When God delights in us, He shows us His favor.

Yet he delights in our prayers, our humility, our interior sacrifices - in short, He delights in our gifts of love from ourselves to Him. (He then shows this delight by giving of Himself and His own to us.)

Shelve this train of thought for a moment. We'll come back to it.

Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God. Thus each of us shines with the love of God. The more we are in tune with God, the more of His love we give to others and receive from others.

Shelve this thought right next to the other one.

Delight is a strong word. There's a big difference between "You make me laugh" and "Your humor delights me." Even greater is the gulf between either of these and "I delight in your humor" (or, even further removed, "I delight in you").

Can you imagine that? If a friend came over and told you, "I just delight in you, in your person: your quirks, your humor, your intelligence, your passions..." (Naturally, this would have to be someone who knows you well enough to have a sense of these things, otherwise it'd just be creepy, and that's not what we're discussing here.): Does that make your skin prickle? Does it feel just a bit intrusive? Just plain weird?

Why? True delight is based in generous love. When one perceives the goodness of God incarnated in another person, words like joy and appreciation are often simply inadequate to relay the depth of heartwarming love experienced. Agape needs no excuses.

I am sure I will someday delight greatly in my children, much more than I can currently conceive possible. In the meantime, Our Lord has blessed me with a jovial temperament and true delight in many, many people. As I am a young single woman, these people fall into four categories: family, female friends/acquaintances, male friends/acquaintances, and people I know from afar (this runs the gamut from that priest at the parish whom I've never met outside of Mass to that professional musician whom I consider to be a genius).

Family is family, and it doesn't feel voyeuristic to admire a stranger from afar (well, usually). Women are used to complimenting women (catty competition aside). There's even a certain degree of security in my friendships with married men, because I'm also friends with their wives (though these can still be precarious). When these extraordinary affections get most tricky is when it's with those single men whose mere presence brings me such delight.

This has happened to me more times than I can easily count: I experience such great love and appreciation for a man with whom I interact regularly... You've seen it coming: it's very difficult to delight in a man without succumbing to the pressure to develop a false crush on him. It becomes much easier when one of us secures our vocation in some way (e.g., enters a relationship or seminary), because then the ambiguity disappears.

But why the pressure of compliment? Why is it so threatening for me to communicate to a man that my delight is not only in his humor or his brains or his way of telling stories or his fashion sense? That it's more holistic than that: that everything about him fills me with holy joy simply because Our Lord saw fit to create such a wonderful creature?

But sometimes such bare honesty is inappropriate to the relationship between two people. Sometimes true charity requires that you withhold verbal expression of the depth of your delight. Though neither agape nor philia need eros, they both can be easily confused by the thought (the fear?) of the presence of their more passionate sibling.

Right now, I think I'll show that love by beseeching Our Lord to send His favor upon those who fill me with such true delight. That, and by laughing at their jokes.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Just Laughing

Some of you know me to be terrifically witty and hilarious. But in the beginning, it was not so.

Even still, you bring me to a Gilligan family gathering and I'm the one who sits there quietly and laughs at everyone else's jokes (and it's not because I turn off my humor quotient; they're just that much more hilarious than I am, in comparison). When I was a little girl, one of the things I most longed to be (besides not white) was funny.

I can still specifically remember the first time someone acknowledged me as funny (in early high school). Gradually, I came to realize that it was okay to recycle my dad's and grandfather's jokes in a new audience, and from that eventually developed a sense of humor all my own. I became used to making people laugh, and delighted in it!

This continued into college. The famed "Ann Arbor Eight," who constituted my immediate group of best friends, included many hilarious, philosophically inclined men, and I thoroughly enjoyed throwing my two cents into their conversations (and was especially proud when I could hold my own).

But I grew more into myself over time, which (in my case) meant drawing back in and becoming a bit more introverted. By the end of college, when the same guy banter came up, I was equally pleased to join in, to sit and listen and laugh, or to leave and chat with the girls.

So it wasn't a huge transition when I came to grad school at a seminary and found myself mostly just laughing at everyone's jokes, and rarely making my own. At first I thought this was a transition and comfortability thing, but I am very comfortable here now, and yet most of what I do is still to just laugh.

This makes sense to me: As it took me a long time to believe I was actually funny, so it's taking me a long time to believe that my presence can be appreciated when all I contribute to a conversation is laughter.

I'd begun to realize this now that Michael is graduated and moved to the area - see, his girlfriend Gina doesn't find him funny at all, whereas he barely has to wave hello and I laugh. When I'm around (read: when he has a heartily laughing audience again), it's visibly the-opposite-of-demoralizing for him, and he appreciates it.

Seriously? Who doesn't love a good-natured person who will laugh at ALL their jokes, and not out of pity but because she legitimately thought they were funny? How silly that it's taken me so long to realize!

I think it's finally sinking in, though. As I chuckled through lunch yesterday, Denis declared, "I'm glad you're here to laugh at my quirks." And that's when it hit me: My laughter is a contributing to the conversation! I don't have to be a major player; I don't have to throw out incredible insights or hilarious quips and puns. Somebody has to be the audience, and that's no less essential to an enjoyable chat.

I like this whole finding yourself in Christ bit. The me He has in His mind is way more relaxing and awesome than the me I've tried to create for myself.

Iesu, mitis et humilis Corde, fac cor nostrum secundum Cor tuum.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Red Hats and Other Wardrobe Eccentricities

I like to wear eccentric outfits.  It’s about beauty, really, and offering to the world a unique shade of beauty with a style that they won’t see anyplace else.

It wasn’t about beauty when I started.  Well, maybe it was in childhood, when I just liked bright colors and loud patterns; perhaps the fact that I liked them so much shows the attractive power of beauty (you can judge for yourself how my subjective standards of beauty measured up to more objective standards).

But when I got to college and could finally, after thirteen years of Catholic school uniforms, wear whatever I wanted every day, beauty was not a factor in my equation.  I wore what I wanted to wear because I could, and because it was fun to combine things together that formerly seemed taboo (a favorite: skirt and tshirt).  I clearly remember the shock I felt when a dear friend, reminiscing over our first year, remarked that my outfits didn’t always look spectacular, but were none the less distinctive.  This opened up a new world to me: You mean that these crazy ensembles I’ve been throwing together actually look good!?  The thought had never occurred to me!

Not an unusual combination for Claire world of early college
Over time, as I got older and more involved in campus leadership positions, I found myself wanting to class up my act a bit.  I kept the unusual flair of my style, but tamed down some obnoxious tendencies and looked more into classic or old-fashioned stylistic elements.

In the meantime, beauty had been becoming more and more a central theme in my interior life.  We are lead to truth through goodness and beauty, and it is in the very nature of woman to offer her beauty to the world (the trick is doing it in an appropriate manner…).  Simply by being beautiful, I can draw people to God.  How cool is that!?

Additionally, Our Lord sees my beauty, on the inside and the outside, and loves it thoroughly (particularly as it is a reflection of his perfection).  I am secure in His Love, and therefore am able to offer his love to others.

So I offer my beauty.  I wear elegant hats on everyday occasions, clothes with strange textures or exceptional colors.  And I do it with the confidence that, no matter what I wear, I am beautiful.

And let me tell you: The looks on people’s faces as they observe or compliment a particularly unusual outfit is one of joy.  As much as I enjoy the clothes I wear, it is quite clear to me that the people around me love it even more.  (Which makes packing for a long weekend very difficult, let me tell you.)

So, my friends, treat your beauty as a gift.  Wear it with confidence in Our Lord’s great love for you, and with the knowledge that sharing with others a bit of the beauty He’s given you is truly drawing them to Him.  Let your elegance be a bright spot in someone’s day, and never tire of receiving compliments graciously.

They say you never know the difference a smile can make in someone else’s day.  Let’s see how much of a difference we can make with a hat, shall we?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Slowing Down, and Being

Sometimes it takes a visitor for you to realize what a new place has taught you.

This weekend, Greg came to visit.  We pretty much did the same things I'd normally do anyway, except that the homework bits were replaced by the two of us chatting.  As we took a leisurely drive around the lake this morning, Greg commented that, "It's so weird not to be doing fifty things at once."  And I realized: I've become used to that, to whatever is the opposite of multitasking (unitasking?).  But let me back up.

For meals here on campus, they only serve at certain times, and for only so long.  So the whole campus eats lunch at 12, for instance.  Because of this, it's standard procedure (and only polite) to remain at your table until everyone who's seated there - including those who arrived as you were finishing your food - has finished both eating and talking.  If you have a particular reason why you need to go, that's not held against you, but the primary time of socialization here is over meals, so you just budget an hour for lunch and chat with who you sit with.

Even the campus itself invites you to slow down.  The speed limit here is 25, but every time I glance at my speedometer, I'm barely hitting 15.  There's just this serene feeling of being in nature (on nature's turf, if you will), such that you want to slow your car down to be as inconspicuous as possible.  The focus is not on where you're going to end up but on the journey, on the beauty you're in the midst of as you go.

Too, there aren't a million social activities here like there are at undergraduate colleges.  This place is just a grad school and a seminary, nothing else.  So while there are things to do and people to see... let's just say I don't think I've had so few extracurricular activities in my schedule since middle school.  Not to suggest that I'm not doing anything - I work, and I go to class, and I catch up with friends via the phone, and I do research, and I pray, and I eat, and I sleep - but only that I spend larger chunks of time doing fewer things.

I suppose I'm learning about small town life, in a way.  Not to suggest that ours is a self-contained community, but that it is small, intimate, and slower-paced. And I've always had a hard time with not-fast-paced.  I do, I suppose, expect that others who come to visit are looking for something to do, which we don't really have.

You don't come here to do; you come here to be.  It's a distinction I often forget.  Hopefully two years here will enable me to internalize this enough that I can live it even in the midst of Big City life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Names

They told us in theology classes years ago that, in the Hebrew tradition, names are a big deal. That God renaming Abram Abraham was significantly more than just a nickname. That God's revelation of His Name to the Chosen People through Moses marked a covenental intimacy that no other people had with their God. That even still, when one writes the Name of God in the original Hebrew, he is required to break the pen (or whatever writing implement) he used, because it has written the greatest thing it is possible to write. That at the Name of Jesus, every knee must bow.

But names still never seemed like anything to write home about, other than these sacred Names. Making connections at a new place here has reminded me how normal it is to name-drop - not even to impress people, but just to find common ground, whether it's people you personally know or perhaps those with a bit more notoriety that you mutually follow. I'm sure my fellow Steubie grads who read this are well aware of the moment when you introduce yourself and identify your background, and the Catholic you're talking to immediately throws out names of others who attended our school. It's just a natural way to put ourselves at ease with others.

So when I'm now meeting awesome people who are headed to my alma mater, I think nothing of telling them to send my best to those people still there whom I most treasure and/or whom they're likely to meet.

There is one particular professor whose class I recommend as worth nearly as much as the entire rest of one's education there; naturally, I tell these new student friends of mine to seek him out and take his class at all costs. Turns out at least one of these friends made it in to his already overfilled class specifically because he told this prof that I told him he had to take the class.

That brought it home: My name is important. Perhaps that's just me developing notoriety, but it was a strange feeling, to know that my name alone - not my presence, my email, or anything else I directly did, but just my name - was enough to influence such a decision.

Growing up, I always called the Mother of God simply "Mary." That was her name, so that's what I called her. When I began to meet other Catholics my age who practiced their faith, I noticed that most of them called her the Blessed Mother. As I grew to learn bits and pieces of other languages, I saw that in Polish, she is usually called Mother of God; in French and Spanish, Our Lady. Whenever a Marian priest said Mass, his homily always tied in Our Lady.

My point? After a time, it became clear to me that those people with great devotion to the Immaculate Virgin called her by different titles, and almost never by her name. So I intentionally switched from referring to her as Mary to our Blessed Mother. As time continued, I found myself desiring a deeper love for Our Lord's Mother, so I thought I'd do what everyone I know with strong Marian devotion does: intentionally refer to her as Our Lady.

And, wouldn't you know it, my love for her has soared. And all I've done differently is change how I refer to her. Not even how I address her; that's the same as it's been since childhood. Just calling her "Our Lady."

Because of which, I've unconsciously begun to refer to Jesus as "Our Lord," rather than simply as Christ. It's a title that radiates both loving affection and submissive intimacy. And I love it.

I pray that Our Lord bless you and Our Lady watch over you and all those whom you hold in your heart.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On the Divine Office (and Liturgical Time)

Ouch. Has it really been so long since my last post? My thanks to those of you who've reminded me, through comments and conversations, that I have a blog and that people read it. This one goes out to you.

From the time when I first came to know what the Liturgy of the Hours was, I knew that priests were canonically bound to say all the hours every day. (Note: Each "hour" takes only a few minutes to pray; they are so named because they are tied to specific times in the day.) There was a period of about three months when I prayed three to seven of those hours each day. And for years I've prayed morning &/or evening prayer close to daily.

But being surrounded by priests has slowly shown me that, like most laypeople, I take the Office for granted, and completely underestimate what a vital element it is to the life of the priest.

The director of my program often says, "The liturgy shares her treasures with those who sit with her and wait." One does not come to understand the liturgy by a cursory glance or by going through the motions, but by inserting one's whole self into the prayers consistently for years and patiently picking up little gems along the way, one by one, until you have more diamonds than the Queen of England.

Liturgical time is an important function of the sacramental life of the Church. That is to say, in liturgical time, the mysteries of salvation are explained and lived out for all those who pay attention. This is most easily seen through the liturgical year, which obviously walks us through the life of Christ. But it's also true of the liturgical week. In the Office, if you look closely, you can see a pattern of beginnings and endings, in the intercessions and especially the proper hymns for the four-week psalter (which are unfortunately only visible in the original Latin and in the Mundelein Psalter). The hymns at the beginning of Weeks I & III are about creation, and those toward the end of Weeks II & IV are about the end of time. It's very cool.

What I always forget, however, is that each day is a liturgical mini-history of salvation! Again, this is especially apparent in the Divine Office: particularly check out the orations (prayers) for each hour in any of the four weeks (stick with Ordinary Time, because it doesn't have any other themes to distract from the point I'm trying to make). Morning prayer is about creation and beginnings, midafternoon prayer is about Jesus' passion, evening prayer is about thanksgiving for the day that's been lived, and night prayer is about death.

LinkDo you see now how praying these hours every day for years upon years would have a profound affect upon a priest? Little wonder many priests jokingly refer to their breviary as their girlfriend: she's with him wherever he goes, he checks in with her throughout the day, and he must be faithful to her.

The Divine Office is an extension of the Mass; in the Liturgy of the Hours, the priest continues to live in the texts of the Scriptures and of the day's feast long after the Eucharistic celebration has ended. Priests are canonically bound not only to celebrate the Mass, but to live it via the Divine Office.

I love our Catholic faith. Its beauty never ceases to astound me.
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