A Time to Dance
"It would not be Carnival without dancing." ~ from Around the Year with the von Trapp Family
Those who know us know that we put effort into embracing good old customs when we discover them. We would not have foreseen traditional dance as a potential mainstay, but now we find ourselves learning the tunes and practicing the steps in living room and hallway, dining room and kitchen alike, as we prepare to leave off of festivity for the upcoming penitential season of Lent. One of many resources for us over the last couple of years for "good old customs" has been the charming and quite informative recollection of traditions by Maria von Trapp. Long enamored of The Sound of Music, and with our discovery of the Traditional Latin Mass and all the ancient rituals, devotions, sacraments, and calendar, it has been easy to delve into this book and try to make some of that famous old-world singing family's pastimes our own.
In addition to the Liturgical focus, we have also recently made great progress on our long-desired Mary garden. Last weekend (on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, no less) many helping hands came joyously together to hammer out in very short time some projects involving serious physical labor. A friend with a loader helped us not only reattach many purple martin houses that had been blown off in storms over the last year - it was a tricky task with a raised bucket and long ladder and assembly line of people handling good wire and hanging nests - but, more importantly, accomplished the digging component so we could erect a stone retaining wall below Our Lady's feet where our Fatima statue stands in front of the fig tree in our back yard. It is before this spot we kneel to pray our rosary at each gathering at our home, and we have long wished to make the space more special. The stones had been gathered over time (and more were gathered on the day) from our woods, with children and adults alike hefting the rocks gladly by hand or in a wheelbarrow. This past Saturday morning we were working against time and making many petitions that the rain would hold off, and it did. The skies opened in a downpour only after we had placed the last stones and were standing back to evaluate the wall midday, Deo gratias! On a simple level, we have done some hard work before enjoying a bit of leisure. The garden will be enhanced with many features - shrubs and flowers and finishing touches - between now and Easter; for now a great purpose is served in giving Our Lady a greater place of honor. But what has our Mary garden to do with dancing? Perhaps nothing obvious, but at least subtly there is a connection between giving glory to the Son (the one from Whom dancing - really enjoying the bounty of life - takes true meaning) by honoring His mother (the one through whom we receive the gift of life in Him) and our upcoming preparation for the greatest feast in the Church.
This year, to kick off Lent with emphasis, we are hosting a Carnival gathering the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. From the von Trapp book and from any quick perusal of old Church customs, it is plain to see that Holy Mother Church leads us through formative seasons, feasts and fasts, joyfully exuberant times and spare penitential times, all for the good of the soul and to keep us hinged in reality and Truth. Yes, what we eat and drink and the habits we daily keep are related to the state of the soul! Carnival is traditionally the period between Jan 6 and the Tuesday evening before Ash Wednesday, a time of feasting and revelry, especially dancing (the art of which is all but lost). On the Lenten practices, Maria von Trapp spends many lines describing her realization of the lamentable easing up of the old fasts and penances in order to accommodate for modern man, who (it is surmised) is not built for tough times. Nay, she asserts and we agree, that cannot after all be true. For the evidence of the good practices of old, surely also good for us now, is too much. The spiritual and physical benefits both of giving up meat and other rich sustenances for a time is overwhelming and besides, and this is the point that resounds with and inspires our family especially, she sees the immediate fruits in the von Trapp family and faith life so clearly that she needs no further study or convincing. Pancake Tuesday and Easter eggs, roast lamb and chocolate treats, all take on a manifest significance once we realize that people used to give up not only meat but eggs and all dairy for the entirely of Lent. We all know that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and it makes sense to do without the things we enjoy for a while in order to truly enjoy a celebration later - moreover and more importantly we gain mastery over our wills, become more dependent on God to sustain us, and grow in virtue and humility when we mortify our bodies. In weakness we realize His great, abiding care. Advent too is a "little Lent," a related time of holding off and preparing for a greater celebration. All this to say we should gratefully embrace these good-for-the-soul traditions.
And so, our family plans to have a party revolving around traditional dance (to live music!) and carnival games and, of course, vast quantities of delicious food. With friends of good will we will celebrate the bounty of God's gifts, and then bid adieu to the good things together, "Carnivale!" (Farewell, meat!) Using up the leftovers and enjoying the carnival remnants til Fat Tuesday, we will then put away the feasting ways and take on the sparer ones - doing without, praying, sacrificing, giving alms, performing penance, atoning for sins - to join Christ in His passion and prepare properly for the Resurrection, when we will dance again. May Our Lord and Our Lady help us on our way!
Star of Wonder...
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men to the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to adore him...And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down, they adored him: and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-2; 11 DR)
On January 6th the Church celebrates the adoration of the Magi, when the Three Wise Men from the East came to worship the long-foretold Savior in Bethlehem. They had been guided by a star and found, as had been expected, the babe Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in a humble manger with His quiet, holy parents submitting to such royal homage. Lowly shepherds, beasts of the stable, and untold numbers of angels gathered there with the Holy Family for God to bless the Son's birth and announce Him, King of All, to the world. The moment is called "the Epiphany" because it is the moment of manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the glorious beginning of the rest of our salvation history. At His name every knee shall bend, and every tongue confess. And though as St. Paul instructs we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling, nonetheless we also join the choirs of heaven in joyous song as we proclaim the birth of the Redeemer. And so we had planned for our First Sunday gathering on January 1st to be, as is appropriate, a Christmas party replete with carols and singing and feasting and hot cocoa and all!
But come Christmas Eve this year, while we were trimming the tree and making ready for Midnight Mass, Mr. Verlander threw out his back and - though we did manage to get to that wee-hours Mass - it made for an unusually humble beginning of Christmas for the family. He was entirely laid up in a painful way, and then the family fell sick with a terrible cold (everyone except, God be praised, me - so I could serve as nurse for a couple weeks in as humble and grateful a fashion as I could muster!). But then we had to cancel our First Sunday gathering. It made sad faces sadder for a time, but we would be remiss if we failed to admit that we have cherished memories already in the unexpected ways that Christmas joy made itself manifest to us even as we carried these crosses at the most wonderful time of the year.
One of the unexpected gifts this Christmas came when we were gifted with a beautiful outdoor nativity set out of the blue. It has all the figures - Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus, the shepherds with sheep, a cow, a donkey; there are angels, a star, three wise men with camels! Another unexpected gift came when a young man from church asked if we could perhaps bring instruments and do some carols during the parish Epiphany party after Mass since everyone had missed the gathering? The idea immediately appealed to our finally convalesced children, along with their father on the mend, and they eagerly loaded up a mandolin, guitar, tin whistle, recorder, and bodhran as we headed out for Mass that Sunday. Another friend had enthusiastically promised to come with his fiddle. After Mass and after warming up for about twenty minutes under a tree in a lot near the parking lot, our youthful singers ushered into the crowded parish hall. The room was loudly abuzz with unsuspecting families enjoying an Epiphany celebration; they were milling through the buffet line, lined up at the kitchen counter for a coffee, or seated and chattering around tables. The room is small, but it was so alive with crowded talk that hardly anyone noticed the kids set up in a corner and commence with Angels We Have Heard on High. However, to witness the sheer delight when, one by one by one, people began to wonder if they were really hearing music and singing, and to see their faces light up with surprised smiles as they cast their gazes on the several players, was wonderful. Then, people shifted their seating and gathered in closer, and in no time it was a caroling party. People sang where they sat or stood, or lined up with the players and heartily joined in. Babies laughed and danced and clapped, children sang along, parents and grandparents smiled and sang and took pictures. It was a tiny slice of heaven and a welcomed one for us especially after a sometimes weary time of suffering. In the scheme of things it wouldn't have looked like much - a relatively petty group of Mass goers crammed into a small and lackluster parish hall to sing like amateurs a handful of old fashioned songs. But it was something, and it surely touched a possibly long-hidden cherished memory for someone, or a handful of someones, and rekindled the old kind of childhood Christmas joy and childlike faith in God. And ideally it pleased the Father who gives us reason to sing. The little hall echoed with Joy to the World, We Three Kings, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Good King Wenceslas, Away in a Manger, What Child Is This, Silent Night, Hark, The Harold Angels Sing and then a resounding Green Grow the Rushes, O! The songs brought young and old together in a merry time of gratitude for the manifestation of the Savior, and for those who hung back on the fringes and were too shy or jaded to sing, too bad. It was an unexpected party and one we will not soon forget!
Merry Christmas, God Bless This New Year, and Happy Epiphany! May we be led and inspired by the light of truth for all our days, and gratefully accept His gifts and graces as they manifest!
Good King Wenceslas...
Brightly shone the moon that night
though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel.
~from Good King Wenceslas
On the second day of Christmas, basking in the joy of the Christchild's birth, we think of turtle doves and celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, first martyr of the Church. He died "by rocks" (one of our children quipped one All Saints Day) and represents for us a happy mixture of undaunted virtue and the bliss of true Charity. Our boys are part of a guild of altar servers under his patronage, and we begin this day with Mass; we also make sure to play and sing "Good King Wenceslas"in honor of the saint. The old song retells a story of the good king (a saint himself) who ventures out "on the Feast of Stephen"and finds occasion to gift a poor man on the wintry-est of days with the fruits of his royal bounty. It is a charming tale, and the song is a true favorite of the family at Christmastime.
A few years ago, we took a family trip to attend an Immaculate Conception banquet at Gregory the Great Academy. This visit was fruitful in many ways, and we enjoyed our time more than we can tell and brought away many cherished memories. Indeed we have borrowed many of the Academy's traditions and instilled them in our own home as best we can, knowing we can only echo the music, sacred reverence, and festive atmosphere of the place. But we have been joined by friends when we gather and celebrate the saints and holy ones, and this past year especially we have received remarkable support from souls of good will who seem to share our vision of a good way to live - of a good way to raise children in a fallen world - with hope for the future. For this Christmas, our daughter thought to sift through a few of our memories, and compiled some video snippets of our Immaculate Conception adventure those years ago to share with friends. That evening at Gregory the Great we enjoyed a play and juggling show based on the story of Good King Wenceslas, and then were further regaled by joyous songs and performances at the banquet. We were entertained and served by boarding school boys the whole evening, who played their parts with a heartiness, piety, and cheer unrivaled in a sometimes weary world. For us the spirit was catching and we revel in the experience still. HERE, we'd like to share that compilation with you, to give you a small view of what has inspired us and in gratitude to the ones who especially wish us well. May the Holy Babe grant us joy and peace, and may we all be inspired by Good King Wenceslas and St. Stephen, who model after their Master!
The Hour and Moment...
A couple of weeks ago we got our boy home from "far far school" just in time to celebrate one of our favorite saints, St. Cecilia, with an overnight pig roast and Sunday afternoon of praying, feasting, and edifying performances and displays of art. Our friend raised up a pig for us just for the occasion, and we actually held a slaughter on site the Saturday morning before the roast. A handful of good-willed comrades and budding homesteaders joined in, and though that pig - Hamlet was his name, over 150lbs did he weigh - did not go gentle into that good night, it was an experience to witness feats of manly virtue and prowess to get a hard job done - and in the end we all agreed that it was fruitful on too many levels to count, and we were glad. The pig was scalded, denuded of every last hair and gutted (with the beautiful organs and loins set aside for future use), then splayed upon the recently erected pit to be smoked all night. Three trusty lads pitched tents and tended the raging barrel-fire, carefully fed embers into the base of the pit, and kept the cooking temperature even enough to accomplish a perfect bounty of pork to share the next day. There was more than enough; indeed the food seemed to multiply the more people came. And despite the frigid temperatures that festival day, many came, and stayed late into the evening, enjoying bold Shakespearean recitations and beautiful snippets of poetry; taking in songs from The Sound of Music, sacred music, and traditional folk classics; eyeing a display of various artwork: saints, sketches, bucolic scenes. The beautiful event was followed up a few days later by a lovely Thanksgiving day, begun with Mass, including a family feast, wrapped up with gratitude.
And now, our boy is back to school for a few weeks, and Advent has begun. Our daily life is immediately altered by the hopeful anticipation that accompanies our preparation for Christmas. Here, on the First Sunday of Advent, we pick a good tree for the living room corner, trim it only with white lights, and look forward to carefully placing all the ornaments upon it in a family ritual on Christmas Eve. Like last year, we gathered evergreen branches from around the property to construct a home-made Advent wreath, affixed with candles, for hanging. Each evening at dinner time we light the weekly candle(s), sing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and take the family meal by that candlelight. Sitting together in the flame's gentle glow is a reminder of the Light of the World to come, Our Lord who brings the light of truth into the darkness upon Christmas day. Also, the four porch columns are wrapped with garland and purple, purple, pink, and purple lights, each lit in succession as the weeks go by, a humble witness to the season in a world fully decked out for Christmas proper already. Nativity sets - where possible with the Infant Jesus hidden til the big day - are set up around the house, as well as Dad's nutcrackers and Mom's snow globes (given over the years from the children) set upon mantles and lining the tops of the bookshelves along the walls of the living room, and lovely little decorative knick-knacks and Advent calendars here and there, though all the St. Nicholas decor is saved until his feast day December 6th. We hope to get a life-size nativity going in the old barn, at least this year with Joseph, Mary, and the Divine Child to start. And though we plan to prepare carols, we put off Christmas music til the time has come! It is a hopeful time, but it is also a penitent time - we try to embrace old traditions of family and warmth and sober, faithful piety. We were reminded last Sunday not to spend Advent celebrating Christmas. What a simple and profound notion! Let us look forward to the feast, preparing, as we are taught, "for the double coming (adventus) of mercy and justice" - hopeful in our redemption but ready for His judgment.
Another note about our Advent traditions - it is the time that we pray the beautiful St. Andrew novena prayer, which paves the way perfectly for the momentous occasion of Christ's Nativity. The brief prayer is repeated 15 times per day between the Feast of St. Andrew, November 30th, and Christmas Eve, December 24th. We pray it each evening after singing the Veni and before praying the table blessing. It has never proved a burden but rather a great blessing. May we be blessed with the grace and desire to pray fervently and the will to make ready for the birth of Our Savior!
Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of his Blessed Mother. Amen.
Blessed Be His Holy Name...
We've learned to take what we can get since moving to our little farm, especially in the sense that when we work we pray for God's blessing, invoking many a saint's intercession along the way as we do (hopefully) the best we can, and hope for the best! The great lesson, since we are after all but mere mortals and fallen at that, in addition to never having done many of the things we now feel inspired to put our hands to, is one of realistic expectations and trust in and humblest gratitude for God's will. And so, most recently, when one of our hens suddenly decided she felt broody (after we had asked the chickens all kindly to sit last spring but they, all of them, refused!), we let her sit, offering more than a few prayers and hoping for the best. Very much more recently I flooded Our Lady with Memorares, realizing that Dot (the chosen hen) was looking quite serious in her sitting business, and further realizing that just because we idealized letting mama hen do all the work and letting nature take its course, still there are the natural risks and potential failures involved even in a little matter like hatching a nest of chicken eggs. Would the hen, after all, know what to do? How will the tiny chicks fare with the rest of the flock, especially the mean ol' rooster? How exactly, even if we put out chick feed and water, will they learn to consume it? Is Fall a good time for baby chicks to be born? These are practical questions with many plausible answers. In the end (and this seems to be how it always goes) - praying, and then doing what we can, and then working with reality as it manifests, is the best way to go!
It may seem funny that we could get so excited about chickens, and we are sometimes surprised at the level of drama these birds have produced in our home life, but then again thank God for their place in our lives here, for we are all the better for the drama of caring for chickens. Thus, Wednesday morning it was with great delight I discovered a tiny, newly hatched chick right next to Dot in her sitting box. In honesty it looked just like a wet feather, a tiny little helpless, vulnerable thing - but I know that's how the beginning goes for creatures. As is typical, too, I had not actually tracked her sitting progress perfectly, and so I thought we had at least another several days before hatching could really begin (if it came about at all). Petitioning heaven to help things go smoothly, I did some quick review research, made the happy announcement to the children, and outlined what we needed to do to make decent provision for the hen to rear her little brood, with reminders that we need not run around like chickens with our heads cut off, but should proceed as much as possible like the seasoned country folk we pretend - in all sincerity try with earnestness - to be.
We scuttled the very concerned other hens out and blocked them into the run for the time being, cleaned up the coop as non-invasively as possible around the soon to be, maybe, teeming nursery box, hauled cinder blocks and bricks to construct some manner of stairs for the chicks to get down and back up again, set a fresh waterer on the floor of the coop, and closed everything up quietly again. We tried to feed and give water to Dot to no success, so serious was she, so we let her be. Later, the first chick was amazingly transformed into a quite adorable and fluffy, bright eyed little thing - bringing us all the memories of our first encounter with our chickens when they were babies long ago. But, hooray! One of our chickens has hatched her own chicks, one of many goals we've nurtured and a big step in our book. On top of the excitement of the hatching, it is astounding to watch how quickly the chicks are viable. One moment they lie helpless, the next they are bobbling around, in and out from beneath the warm sanctuary of their protective mother, then next they take up the cue to drink water and peck at food, wholly unlike human infants who are so utterly helpless and entirely dependent for so long (though not without far more profoundly God-given capacities) - but not unlike in some of the emotions and deeper realities they evoke. Only God can make a tree, and only God can make the beautiful form and being of creatures - we are His intricate handiwork!
Now, everyone knows you should not count your chickens before they're hatched. We do not know if in the end our Dot will turn out something like Jemima Puddle-duck, for indeed most modern day chickens have had their instincts bred right out of them. Needless to say there are a good portion of eggs left under Dot - who sits still - whose fate we cannot tell. And even just moments ago, we found that one of the five hatched so far - the one that had seemed especially fragile from the first - did not make it. This one we had taken extra care to tuck under Dot, so long it had been lying still without moving after it had hatched, and it did indeed revive and briefly blossomed into an adorable golden and grey striped fluff-ball, but we watched it with reservation. ~ We took its tiny, lifeless little body a few minutes ago and placed it in a small grave quickly dug (near where Veronica's poor goldfish were buried last year!), complete with prayers of thanksgiving to Our Heavenly Father, the Lord of All Life, in gratitude for the brief chance to care for this creature and in petition for help to care for the rest, whatever He grants us to do. He gives, and He takes away, blessed be His Holy Name!
One additional happy note to be made is the immediate joy that springs up in an encounter with new life. In the last forty eight hours we have witnessed spontaneous smiles and giddy exclamations from grown ups and children and typically cool-headed teenagers alike, and those glimpses of innocent pleasure are welcome in a weary world. These moments are momentary, and we'll take them as they come. Chickens are not considered by many to be abundantly important in the scheme of things, but our experience with them has enriched our lives so (not to mention their use in providing us delicious and nutritious eggs) and to hold a baby chick or hear its little peep - perhaps before it has even broken through the shell of its egg - is a wondrous thing that revives the life blood of most decent souls and makes you happy to be alive. Deo gratias for simple reminders of His magnanimous Providence, and may we be worthy of the gifts He grants us in this life.
To Write a Letter...
September has been the fullest month, with our home totally changed now that Thomas is away. Now, the advent of this undertaking, the sending of our boy off to school, that is, is far more happy and fruitful than it could be otherwise, and lest we seem ungrateful for God’s many gifts and graces, we cannot fail to acknowledge how much we are blessed, far more than we could ever have foreseen. Our homeschool year is more peaceful and joyful than ever, and we had some late surprises from the Summer garden after a rough and sordid season - these kinds of things have kept our cup of wonder filled to overflowing. We have employment, shelter, provision enough, a tightly-knit family life and a fervent faith. Our Lady has never failed us in our prayers to her, and our oldest son - though absent from our daily affairs and indeed it is with heartache we miss his face and smile and singing voice, as well as his handiness in physical tasks - is away on the educational adventure of a lifetime, so far as we can tell, in answer to many prayers.
Which brings us to the art of written correspondence, an art not at all foreign to us but one that has taken a delightful and more enlivened turn these last weeks. Unmediated conversation (real, live, and face to face) is ideal, praying together is sanctifying, reciting poetry is beautiful, singing songs together is sublime, but in the alternative, to write a letter is not a bad way to talk to someone you love. Indeed it may be superior to most ways. We packed into Thomas’s things just before he left a good supply of distinctive stationary, envelopes, and stamps, with the hope it would make it all the more easy for him to write if he ever got the chance (we were not sure if he would ever have the time). Letters with hand-drawn pictures and snippets of tales or songs or poetry from home were mailed off quickly to him after his departure (it is a bittersweet moment to write to your son the first time he is really away, as it was hearing his voice on the phone the first time he called from school, a week in). We have kept up weekly letters off to him - who doesn’t love getting a handwritten note? - filling him in on the mundane (but not uninteresting) details of life at home: the First Sunday gathering without him, the terrified groundhog our dog had cornered in the backyard, our first-prize-at-the-county-fair watermelon, the new family van, our little homeschool successes. And of course we’ve included all our queries over his new life at Greg’s.
There is something wonderful, an inspired thing, that happens between the idea in the mind and the commitment of it upon the page with pencil or pen, an enjoyable and we think vital piece of living that should never be eschewed. True, we can rapidly transfer thoughts into words by quickly pressing keys (this brings a memory though of the ancient way of doing such a thing - never will I forget the beautiful punching, whir and ring of the typewriter while my mother typed away all those years). But it isn’t the same; it isn’t the same. We know it isn’t the same, and yet we insist upon it, almost wholly to the detriment of our children’s tender imaginations and innocent minds. In addition, it is not simply quaint to write in cursive; the very act of writing in script is virtuously formative, for then in patient, careful consideration is the soul transfixed to make a loving gift of itself to another.
So, lo! How happy the day when my daughter walked down to the mailbox to find that singularly stripe-edged envelope with her name written nicely in cursive upon it, in the hand of her loving brother. It brought our hearts such a happiness just to see it, and that was even before we read the contents! A full page and a half, with three post-scripts he sent to her, and that will keep us content for a good while; good boy! Our correspondence will fill in great part the interstices between holidays and windows of time with him at home, and we are thankful for this simple, pleasurable, memorable, and engaging way of getting along.
May the Word Incarnate keep us in His gaze, and may His loving Mother continue to pour graces upon our humble efforts!
"My Heart Leaps Up..."
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I should grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
~ "The Rainbow" by William Wordsworth
Several weeks ago, upon a First Sunday gathering at Fatima Farm, it began to rain toward the end of our festivities. Those guests remaining - and there were still many - gathered casually closer in under the protection of the gazebo where music was being played, and as the rain was not too heavy no one was really bothered. In fact many children remained scattered around playing in the fields. One child, he was six years old, ran suddenly up to his father who was at the moment playing a washboard along to a bluegrass tune. The boy talked excitedly for a moment then pointed behind him, upwards, gesturing for his dad to look up. The man peered along the lines of the point, but couldn't obviously see whatever wrapt his boy's attention in the moment. Two minutes later, an older boy, about 16 years old, broke off from his game of football toss and jogged over to the gazebo and, as the song had culminated and there was a moment of quiet, called out, "Come look at the double rainbow!" It was no longer raining, the sun had broken through the clouds westward, and the group hurried out into the open space to see the sky and were met with an astonishing sight - a perfectly glorious rainbow spanning the expanse of eastern sky from end to end, with its double just a space above, just as full if only somewhat diminished in color.
There were audible gasps and "oohs" and "aahs" - as there should be. Mr. Verlander immediately began to recite Wordsworth's poem, as he should. To a friend who came out a moment too late to see - for after a couple of minutes the rainbow faded right before our eyes as we watched, we were gifted with the chance to look up when it manifested - it was said, "Nothing gold can stay." It was a simple, wonderful, happy minute of life in an already enjoyable day - and we are always deeply glad for those reminders of God's magnificence, for really only He could have orchestrated the universe to be beautiful, even long centuries into its fallenness, just so, as laid witness by the natural instinct - or blessed inspiration - of young and old alike to glory in the sight.
Yesterday we held a farewell party for our oldest son who will next week begin his adventure at Gregory the Great Academy. With close friends and family, we began by praying a rosary, entrusting our son to Our Lady's special care, with pointed petitions for his growth in the theological and cardinal virtues, followed by a blessing with holy water by his father and godparents. Mr. Verlander took the opportunity then to introduce his mother who had come, too, and explain her vital role in his own formation - he prayed his first rosary with his mother, and she catechized him and ensured his education in Catholic schools, so much does she understand the import of such things. The fruits of her labors are now evident in her grandchildren, and we are grateful. With this background summary we invited everyone to continue to pray for our son as he begins his education far away (this latter aspect the most difficult part). After a veritable feast, Mr. Verlander rang the bell again to gather everyone for a sort of presentation of the gifts. He recited Thomas Moore's "The Minstrel Boy" (for our Thomas More) - a poem about a boy going off to war girt with his father's sword and a harp "slung behind him." The minstrel falls but he tears the harp's "chords asunder" for its "songs were made for the pure and free/They shall never sound in slavery." Mr. Verlander bestowed on his oldest boy, clearly for all to see the apple of his eye, his own rosary (our greatest weapon in spiritual battle) and his cherished guitar - each, we hope, to be used by him each day. He was also given a binder of all our family's favorite songs, most of which we learned from the Greg boys! Then we surprised our son by all chiming in to sing the version "The Minstrel Boy" so well-beloved and often sung by the boys at Gregory the Great. Our son then picked up a guitar and performed "The Parting Glass," accompanied by his older sister. We were pretty well much in tears most of the time, but they were happy tears.
It is nine years since we discovered the existence of this one of a kind boarding school, and we have dreamed of the moment one of our boys would be old enough to go. Our son now, as my husband explained, is a hobbit - and so the sacrifices and sufferings entailed in his leaving home are real and great. And yet he has looked forward also to this day, a natural and not unexpected step in the course of his life growing up so far, and so the hopeful anticipation outweighs our trepidation over the prospect of missing each other. His father, like Gandalf, has full confidence that he is a burglar after all - evidenced not a little by his rapid maturity from, as was quipped, "his twelve year old self to his fourteen year old self" over the last couple years. God keep us on our pilgrim way and especially in this next year. Mother Mary, wrap us in your mantle! Deo gratias for His gifts and graces, we say again and again, and may we all wish our days to be bound each to each by natural piety!
"The Domestic Monastery..."
This month of July, dedicated to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, we have prayerfully navigated many adventures. Our oldest daughter is attending a couple of summer programs for high school students, making opportune a family trip to New England for some happy day trips for us while she studies and discerns at our alma mater. We have learned that prayer is our mainstay, that we miss our daughter greatly in her absence on a daily basis - who knew we could miscount the children so many times in a row - and that the northeastern states offer a beauty and charm hard to find elsewhere in our experience. The running joke was instigated quickly that everything is just "perfect" around here - lush greenery, wonderfully kempt yet naturally wild-looking flower gardens in every yard, in every garden, along every old stone wall bordering the boundaries, and wonderfully character-filled shingled houses around every bend. Then the stunning vistas of mountains and lakes, ponds, streams, farmland, boulders, and woods. True, we have jaunted through some sketchy neighborhoods, but generally speaking the ambiance is pretty, refreshing, and in a great sense rejuvenating through both the novelty of experience and the oldness of the wood and water and structures - with a healthy dose of nostalgia as we retrace just a little of the memory of our college days.
A definitive highlight to this trip so far, besides visiting a simply beautiful old farm, hiking up and down a mountain (and finding wild blueberries at its peak), having to suddenly take shelter in a public library due to a tornado warning (that was an unexpected surprise - though no real danger manifested, Deo gratias), and visiting our maternal grandmother's and forbears' gravesites, is a relatively impromptu visit to the Maronite Monks of Adoration in Petersham, MA. Mr. Verlander had a retreat there last year, and as we were so near he wanted the family to see where he had spent that quiet and holy week. We are further privileged to know the Abbot (he is the brother of a close friend back in GA), who happily welcomed our unexpected visit. We prayed our family rosary out in a field before a replication of the Pieta, joined the monks for evening prayer, and sat at a table with the Abbot for the better part of an hour - a joy and a great blessing for the family. We heard the story of his calling, and when we asked for advice about how to nurture openness to vocation he said one, prayer; and two, make visits to and speak well of monasteries. This Abbot's happy nature and obvious piety touched us all - our youngest son even failed to be disappointed that he didn't get to see any "monkeys." By grace, we visited on the day before their patron's feast day (July 23), with the feast beginning at evening prayer (this is an "ice cream feast" for them - a very big deal!).
The Abbot likes to think of the family as the domestic monastery - a fitting title for our family's ideals, as we ever model after the monastic life of ora et labora, prayer and work, inclining our hearts to the order set by the Creator for our ultimate fulfillment. Being St. Sharbel's feast, we knelt, and the Abbot made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the saint's oil, blessing our persons and our pilgrimage and asking God's protection over us. St. Sharbel, a 19th century Lebanese mystic especially devoted to Jesus in the Eucharist, will remain a model and guide. As the sun began to set over the peaceful pines of the monastery, where we had the gift of glimpsing the faces of those holy men dedicated to a life of saving souls, we bid the Abbot farewell and went on our way. At the last moment, a kind Dominican on retreat agreed to take our photo before the patron's statue, and we left the monastery with the feeling that our visit was rather inspired after all.
For God and King...
Dieu, Le Roi - "for God and King"
In the late 18th century, a little known group of devout Catholics in a western region of rural France known as the Vendee rose up in a counter-revolution and series of battles against the powers that would strike down the faith of their fathers and the universal reign of Christ the King during the long onslaught of the historic French Revolution. These people, mainly peasants, fought valiantly with all they had and, giving their lives for the Truth and under the badge of the Sacre Coeur (the Sacred Heart of Jesus), served to plant the martyred seeds of the faith that still lives strong today, even in a continually embattled state. Too many lost their lives during the Reign of Terror. King Louis XVI famously died at the guillotine, less famously is he known to have heroically resisted the anti-God constitution put in place, and to have publicly forgiven his captors and executioners. His young son Louis Charles died sick and weak from imprisonment and abuse, begging God to forgive his abusers and captors, like his father before him. Further, in another example of selfless and courageous Christian virtue, the Carmelite martyrs of Compiegne sang "Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes" as they filed one by one to the guillotine, happily giving their lives for their beloved Jesus. Only later did religious freedom of any kind return to the country.
Our family has been inspired by the story of the Vendeans over recent years. Like the legendary stories of the saints of early Christendom, like the various missionaries over the centuries who suffered and often died at the hands of those they would convert for the love of God's Kingdom, like the Cristeros fighting against the Godless government of Mexico, calling out their loyalty with "Viva Cristo Rey!" and dying for their beliefs and efforts not so long ago, it shows how our forefathers are not always those we find in the family tree per se. Sometimes our heroes - often our heroes - are unlikely. These men of unexpected courage employ simple steadfastness or loyalty or a keen sense of the right way to be, and serve in a vital moment to overcome the most powerful adversary in the sense of what matters most and in the lasting things. The heroic people of the Vendee saved the faith for the Church's beloved France even while the Revolutionaries by all appearances "won" - upheaving the spiritual order there with drastic, deadly consequences still playing out today the world over. Helped to save the faith they did because, as has always been the case, the gates of Hell will never prevail against Christ's Church nor can any adversary extinguish the light of Truth or kill off for good the truly faithful. There will always be someone, somewhere, who believes and passes on the faith.
In honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to whom the month of June is dedicated, and also in honor of some of those heroes who preserved the faith for us, at our June First Sunday gathering we held a great capture-the-flag battle between the Vendeans ("the Royalists") and the Revolutionaries ("the bad guys"). Young and old(er) alike divvied up into the two teams (with members hand-picked one by one by captains), and spent an hour charging through the woods and fields in an attempt to capture the flag and take the day. No one got injured (unless perhaps in pride), but several flying leaps and tackles were made, many sneaky, covert operations accomplished, and happy prisoners were busted out of jail, on both sides. In one epic pursuit, a Revolutionary dad apparently hurled himself bodily and went flying impossibly through the air, heedless of the perilous forest landscape, to take down a fleeing Vendean boy who lost his tail in a grand tumble. Ultimately, the Vendeans were victorious, and it was something to see the boy who'd captured the flag hoisted up on a strong teammate's shoulders on parade, and also to see the members of the frustrated Revolution quickly shrug it off and say, "Oh well, at least the Vendee won!" In the week following our gathering, a proud father on Fatima Farm watched his oldest daughter sewing a Sacre Coeur patch for her brother - the start of a joyful new (to us) tradition.
Today, we gratefully live out our faith in small attempts to follow in our heroes' footsteps, in prayer, in firm conviction, in loyalty to the things that matter most and most of all for His glory and the reign of Christ the King. His Holy Mother helps us on our way, and we have found friends of good will to keep us company. May God preserve good families and priests! Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us! Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!
Ave Maris Stella...
Ave maris stella,
Dei Mater alma,
atque semper Virgo,
felix caeli porta.
Hail, bright star of ocean,
God's own Mother blest,
ever sinless Virgin,
gate of heav'nly rest.
With the month of May we ushered in the month of Mary, Mother of God and great mediatrix of all graces. Having been devoted to Our Lady for some time, our family finds much solace and fortitude turning to Mary in all things, great and small. Many saints exhort us to turn to her with confidence, and the Church's traditions teach us of her purity and holiness and the trustworthiness of her advocacy for the sake of the salvation of our souls, poor sinners in this valley of tears that we are! She withholds nothing from the Lord, Our Savior, interceding on our behalf, and reflects God and shows us how to walk His path in all her ways. We pray the rosary daily and meditate upon the mysteries of faith, binding ourselves to Our Lady and her promises, and gaze with our hearts upon her loveliness - like the beauty of the shining moon, upon which we gaze with our living eyes, among the stars at night. In our Easter joy, as we rejoice that He is Risen, Alleluia! then, we gladly welcome the month dedicated to honoring the holy mother of Jesus. His vessel, by her fiat and her role in God becoming Man, is Mother of the Church and perfect model of the virtues to which we should aspire. God took the greatest care in creating the woman who would carry Him and bring Him forth into the world, and we freely turn to her in our need and ask her to guide and help us on our pilgrimage to heaven.
On our First Sunday gathering in May, like last year, we constructed a litter for Our Lady - bedecked with flowers and carried by four strong young men. Young and old joined in prayer and song and in the march. We began with the Fatima Angel's prayer and raised up the Fatima Ave as we traversed the farm behind the statue of Our Lady of Fatima - on a beautifully sunlit and blue-skied day, trees swaying in the breeze, and birds on wing and chiming in with their own small but clear voices. Rural Georgia is a far cry from Eden, but springtime can be something to behold here, and the green things and wild things played their parts duly! Our farm animals took part too, as the rooster's crow and the curious calls of the goats could be heard interspersed amongst our prayers and songs throughout the afternoon. Our oldest son helped bear the litter; one of our younger sons (preparing to receive his first Holy Communion at our TLM parish this June, Deo gratias) had the honor of crowning our garden statue after the procession. After these past months, now years indeed, of worldly calamity, confusion, anxiety, and strife, and even as crises continue to manifest themselves in myriad ways, these occasional respites are good for the soul. The feasts and occasions afforded to honor the saints and Our Lady and Our Savior, the Immaculate and Sacred Hearts - they serve as formative and set experiences as we make our way through the year, whatever the world presents. The face of Our Lady is indescribably lovely, but it is always marked with sorrow - a reminder of our fallen state and the hope we should hold in the ultimate happiness that lies beyond the boundaries of this earthly existence. And thus we should wear the world like a loose garment, store up our riches not here but in heaven, and ever strip ourselves of the things that impede us from closeness with the Savior.
But - the yoke is easy and the burden is light! The sounds of singing, the simple gladness that comes with it, and the smiles and laughter of children playing outdoors - all unsullied by the trappings of modern contrivance and convenience (as much as we can render) - give us, as we are inclined to say, glimpses of that better place somewhere just beyond the horizon. May we find in Our Lady a sure guide no matter our troubles, and may God bless us on our way!
On this little homestead our family aspires to work the land and hand on the Catholic Tradition, walking in wonder and learning to live by the fruits of our labor, in honor of Our Lady of Fatima, who guides us to Him.