"But it is true that anyone who dies
in contumacy of the Holy Church,
though he repented at the end, must wait
along this shore for thirty times the span
he spent in his presumptuousness, unless
that edict is abridged through fitting prayers.
Now see if you, by making known to my
kind Constance where you saw my soul and why
delay's decreed for me, can make me happy;
those here - through those beyond - advance more quickly."
~Dante's Purgatorio, Canto III, 136-45.
In November we celebrate the saints and pray for souls, the ones to whom we look as models, and the ones we remember to pray for after their earthly pilgrimage's end. At home we go all out, as much as can be done on a humble scale, inviting young and old alike to join us on the First Sunday dressed as a favorite saint. This year we had a happy turnout - happy most of all since there were many, many especially young ones in costume, and our little farm was covered as if in parade by a festive looking lot of little people (though we had some good big people dressed up, too). It was a sight to see everyone kneeling for the rosary before the Mary statue, more like saints than ever. And later, everyone took a turn saying a few words and having the crowd guess at each identity - in the end the best imitators were picked and recognized with a blessed medal and holy card. Everyone had a good time!
St. Patrick (our host for the day) reminded everyone that we model after the saints because, in all their myriad histories and legends, they show us the way. Not always do we dress like them, but always should we take on their spiritual cloaks, devoting ourselves in prayerful imitation of the holy ones who have gone before. This last gathering, we had many saintly knights and soldiers in attendance, lords and queens, but also quiet, lowly servants who would have died unknown had it not been for their supernatural piety and graceful endurance in the face of all kinds of assault to body and soul. Obviously the body must perish, but the soul must win, if we are to gain the goal set for us by our Creator. The children enjoy the pageantry and drama of it all - plus there is something special about spending the day - praying, eating, playing, singing - in costume, donning the character of not merely someone else, but someone great.
St. Patrick also most notably reminded everyone of the lessons of Dante, whose Divine Comedy teaches the story of souls. Many souls in Dante's Hell suffer for fear they will be forgotten, since they long, as they ever did, for glory and fame. The souls in Purgatory suffer too for fear they will be forgotten, but not from desire for worldly honor, but since they need the prayers of their loved ones to help them make it finally to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory beg Dante to seek out their loved ones still on earth and ask them to pray - tell them please do not forget!
We must not abandon the poor souls in purgatory. Our duty to our loved ones does not end with their parting from this world; sometimes, indeed, this duty begins in earnest once they've died. May we remember to model after the saints, to live a life well, dying to self, decreasing in self so that He may increase. And may we remember to pray for those still waiting to see the face of God!
This past Sunday, we looked to and honored many holy ones and ask them to continue to intercede for us:
St. Patrick, ora pro nobis!
St. Rose of Lima, ora pro nobis!
Venerable Leo Dupont, ora pro nobis!
St. George, ora pro nobis!
St. Matthew, ora pro nobis!
St. Eustace, ora pro nobis!
St. Lucy, ora pro nobis!
St. Christopher, ora pro nobis!
St. Drogo, ora pro nobis!
St. Teresa, ora pro nobis!
St. Ludmila, ora pro nobis!
St. Anne Line, ora pro nobis!
St. Leo the Great, ora pro nobis!
St. Philomena, ora pro nobis!
St. King Louis XI, ora pro nobis!
St. Florian, ora pro nobis!
St. Elizabeth of Hungary, ora pro nobis!
St. Joan of Arc, ora pro nobis!
St. Martin de Porres, ora pro nobis!
St. Albert the Great, ora pro nobis!
Infant Child of Prague, miserere nobis!
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
~ from "Lepanto" by G.K. Chesterton
Recently we held a wonderful First Sunday gathering, honoring Our Lady of the Rosary as always but especially so in this month of October. Mr. Verlander told the story of the great victory in the Battle of Lepanto of the Christians over the invading Turks in 1571, and recited Chesterton's epic poem. What do we make of such far away dangers and feats? The daunting deeds accomplished by heroic, valiant, holy figures against certain death, with miraculous success, at once highlights our smallness and emboldens our better natures. And we fight in the same great battle, truly, granted on a different battlefield, wielding the same great weapon that accomplished the victory of Pope Pius V's Holy League under Don John - the Holy Rosary. The world is less friendly than ever before to those who love the Lord and wish to walk in His ways, especially via the sorrowful way of His Holy Mother and according to the old traditions, and we live our daily lives in spiritual battle. Like the unlikely hero we find in the figure of Don John and even more fittingly, in the figure of Don Quixote, we are able to pick out our path, filled with obstacles as it is, in faith and confidence and through prayers offered to Our Lady. We may seem foolish in the eyes of the world, but we trust to hope in the rewards of eternal salvation, divorced from this world. Our Lady is our loving guide and protectress, to whom we offer roses in return for strength and grace to persevere.
This time, we were missing our two oldest children, both off at school. We wondered what the day and evening would be like, not in doubt over its success, but nevertheless curious over how things would unfold. It is no secret that our daughter is a lively hostess and a talented musician, and takes lead in those arenas with great ease. And our son is simply one of the most likable kinds of boys to be around, and tends to garner, unwittingly, a happy little gathering of like-minded fools (wise fools, to keep the theme). Happily, the day was different but entirely good and enjoyable, and it was something to see our younger set take lead here and there. The poetry recitation stirred hearts and the music did too, growing quickly out of the Fatima Farm theme song to a rousing singalong to all manner of folksongs, romantic to melancholy to rebellious. We've said such things before, but the experience was a welcome respite from the worries of the world, and a vibrant proof that the way to victory is to pass on the things that matter to children, again and again. It must be admitted that the missing party was missed, and we look forward eagerly to the days of their return - for the sake of the home and hearth; for the sake of our friends - but we also are certain that their successes afar add to the richness of life at the farm here at home, sweet home!
There is much to be thankful for even as it is the time of year when the natural world loses its luster. The vibrant, steady greens of summer are traded for the rustic hues of fall, and things go quieter, more restful and reflective; there are fruits but of a different sort. Wardrobes are changed, both for us and for the world outside. It is a favorite time of year around here, as there is nothing quite like the beautiful colors and fragrances of autumn - colorful leaves crunching underfoot and the smell of fire-smoke wafting on the chilly air. The stars seem more twinkly if the sky is clear when the air is cold, and the recent full harvest moon proved that something so silvery can also give off a golden glow. The moon ever reminds us of Our Holy Mother, whose radiance only reflects that of her Son, and points us to him. We know a storm is ever brewing, threatening our way of life, and it seems we should be afraid; but we will continue to sing and pray and tell stories together, holding to the Old Mass and sacraments as the heart of everything - the whole of what we want to pass on to our children.
Weeks ago, when the oldest two children were still home and we were all in the wonderful throes of summer, working and playing together through our days and enjoying relaxed dinners and long-lit evenings, even through the heat - we had indulged in watching a movie. The movie was a rare treat - a warmup to return to school, we had picked the charming Goodbye, Mr. Chips - but it was what happened during the movie that is more memorable. At some point in the middle of watching, we noticed an ephemeral glow through the living room windows. It was one of those moments of very unusual lighting, when in the sunset the sky is not only lit in glorious brilliance in the west, but the whole sky, in fact the whole world, is bathed in an other-worldly kind of color and light, so that things almost look unreal. At a glance, someone piped, "Oh! Look at the sky!" and in a minute we had paused the movie and all ran outdoors to see what amounted to a vision. Our whole landscape was transformed - somewhat like that surreal cast upon nature that happens during a full solar eclipse. Everything, everything, was golden, afire, basked and charged with a heavenly character. Of course it was fleeting - but we had a space of time to walk around the house, gazing and taking it all in, amazed at the affectingly breathtaking scene. It is not every day that the place is swathed in such beauty, so that all the old and rusty and messy edges of life are remade into a most sentimental, beloved picture. Soon enough the vision passed, and as the sun set more fully the light faded and we returned to regular life, but somewhat refreshed with the reminder of God's glory.
It brought to mind a memory from many years ago. I remember being struck by a bright and beautiful full moon in the night sky. It shone out so brightly and suddenly as it broke through the clouds, I was transfixed and somewhat overwhelmed, reflecting in that moment that there was a time in my youth that I would have missed it, being caught up in selfish things. "How many moons have I missed?" I wondered and prayed simultaneously that, may He help us, my family will always remember to look at the sky and be grateful for His creation. It is a simple, common experience, but in these days of artificial reality it may be that many fail to realize there are actually stars in the heavens.
This evening of supernatural fleeting beauty had brought to mind the grand lesson that life, too, is fleeting, and that rather than live like a candle burning on both ends we should live each day well, truly well, so as to die well. We just returned from an epic family road trip wherein we took our oldest child and daughter to college for the first time, and brought our oldest son back to boarding school for his second year - we have two now in "far far" school. The eight days on the road across 14 states contained too many blessings to count, with quick stopovers and reunions with family and friends, endless perfect weather, endless bountiful vistas of fields, mountains, sky, endless encounters with beautiful, striking people and many holy Masses in indescribably beautiful churches. We don't deserve such happiness but we are so thankful! And so, at home now, it is another "new" year and this week is full of adjustment in heart, mind, soul, habit. The fundamentals are the same, but the environs is changed, and we may never figure out how much food to make for meals ever again. Deo gratias we wouldn't have sent them off if we didn't believe these undertakings to be most fruitful, for them and for the family, but still! And so, homeschool has begun in earnest for the other four children, the father of the family is back to the full teaching work-week out of the home, and endless little farm tasks and chores greet us each day. Actually, we came home to hit the ground running - as the first morning home a chicken died and so had to be buried (poor Brownie! She was a favorite!) and that same day we had to dig a post hole and replace our fallen mailbox. But we did it all together, with prayers and even good cheer. May God keep us grateful for good work and continue to give us the strength to grow in virtue through the daily pains of life and loss, the daily pains of overcoming self to do worthy things.
It would be impossible not to mention a much more significant recent loss, one that nearly coincided with the evening of the heavenly sunset. We have followed long-distance the story of a family whose little son was suffering from cancer over the last year and a half, and recently Our Heavenly Father saw fit to call little Michael home. The abundant faith with which his parents and family poured their every last ounce of energy into caring for this dear boy, innocent and even self-sacrificing as he was, offering his pain for souls, was and will remain a remarkable inspiration for us in our own lives. Rife with mystery, poignantly beautiful, purifying and strengthening when we accept His grace - Our Maker draws us along a path of wonder and trial. In your charity, please offer a prayer for the repose of the soul of Michael Harrill, whose life and death proves an example of God's great love in a fallen world.
A few weeks ago, on a whim, our oldest son asked everyone in the family how many nursery rhyme figures they could name from a collection of pictures in the front of one of our Mother Goose books. There were eight characters, each from a different standard rhyme. While generally we avoid 'testing' in such a manner, it was an enjoyable and telling exercise. The exam giving son scored perfectly, and others fared well - the highest score was seven out of eight and one person didn't fare well at all, guessing correctly only one and a half out of eight (we generously gave a little credit for a very near right guess). This person hung his head rightfully in shame! The lesson, especially given who we are and all that we've given our time and energy to these last forever years, was that it would be good to brush up on our nursery rhymes more or less, for in this family it behooves us to get a perfect score on such a test! But this is easy, since we all like to read and to be read to.
Why, though? Do nursery rhymes really matter? We think, yes. More than ever it seems clear that immersion in the lovely and simple foundational music of childhood matters. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales, fables and children's poetry, nurture wonder and reveal the fundamental realities of our existence. Without meaning to exaggerate their importance, good stories, songs, and poems teach us what really matters in life, with strict rules of good and evil, virtue and vice, wisdom and folly. Good art, after all, gives glory to our Maker and reflects His order in the created universe, drawing out the wonders of the natural world and teaching (subtly, naturally, not necessarily overtly) the compelling common experiences and struggles, joys and sufferings, of the most elevated of all His creatures - man.
It very much matters what music animates the soul and compels the will. At the end of the day, every man's yearning for peace is rooted in our restlessness until we rest in Him, and nothing else. And we can be consoled that from before we were born God reveals Himself in signs and wonders and immutable laws, evoking and drawing us to Himself before we can even understand. Akin to the prayers learned at the earliest ages around the table, before the hearth, at Mass, music, stories, and poetry feed the soul and shape the mind. Moreover, beautiful words evoke beautiful images - and revelations of truth, even when it is hard truth, inspire and move one to the better path with an understanding of what to seek and what to avoid. Children are keen in their understanding of what can sometimes seem to us complicated, since they accept mystery so wholeheartedly and without anxiety, and can intuit the supernatural invisible realities that inform our everyday, material existence - without needing to articulate it. Unsullied hearts informed by the universal themes of life grow up with a sense of what is good, true, and beautiful, and are drawn to those objective realities - to goodness, truth, and beauty - with a will to avoid what contradicts or disorders them. We have found that older children, and adults too, reap endless fruits from what is truly remedial education - getting back to basics and, yes, feeding the imagination with simple nursery rhymes and good old tales and folk tunes. Taking a break from the cares of the world, walking in the woods, watching the sun rise, gazing at the stars - what music flits across the mind? What poem wells up from the heart? Like children, we should want our quietude filled by lovely, wonderful things that draw us to our final end! May He guide and inspire us each day on our pilgrim way!
Juvenus dum sumus;
Post iucundum iuventutem,
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.
Let us therefore rejoice,
While we are young;
After our youth,
After a troublesome old age
The ground will have us.
Long have we been acquainted with the adage that life is short. At some point, years ago now and at a time when our children were younger, we began to realize that the phrase doesn't mean what we thought it meant. Yes, life is short - so brief as to be a drop in a vast pool of water it sometimes seems - and so we should live well, not race to enjoy what we can while we have the chance, throwing all caution to the wind. If all is vanity, our substance should be everlasting, not temporal. And the happy moments do come, and we embrace them with all our might! Putting things in the proper order (faith and family first) we noticed a trend of abundant and unforeseen blessings. The Benedictine rule of ora et labora has been employed in all our tasks, and we've heartily enjoyed the feasting times when they come and after the hard work is done. Recently, we were afforded another beautiful glimpse of heaven when we celebrated our daughter's graduation - our first home school graduate - and reaped the wonderful fruits of good friendship, the rewards that come after labor, and the graces that come of diligent prayer.
We set the day as closely as we could, given our simple means, to the best graduations we've ever witnessed, belting out a rousing Gaudeamus Igitur and letting our daughter walk in procession, saying a few brief words about why we live and educate the way we do, giving due thanks to God and our greatest advocate, Our Lady. Good food and happy music abounded, and glad conversations ran long. Nature did its part, too: the sun brightly shone, the sky gleamed blue, the birds sang, and the grass and trees were prettily green, and a light breeze kept us all comfortable. It was a good day, and we are happy for our daughter who manifests God's love for us and who gives us amiable proof that pursuing good, true, and beautiful things is most profitable.
It rained for most of the entire week after this graduation party, and while we hosted extended guests we had a pretty lax time as the weather prevented any usual outdoor chores. Now the party guests are departed, and the rain is done. Wood is being stacked, fence post holes are being dug, the fields are being mown, and we are all going to bed good and tired and grateful. Rejoice while young, but do not live like the grasshopper who finds himself cold and hungry in winter!
The other day our eight year old son called our attention to a bird perched on the back fence. "What is that again?" he asked. "Oh, a mourning dove. Aren't they usually on the ground?" Well, yes, we affirmed. "How did you know that they're usually on the ground?" his Dad asked him. He answered, "I don't know; I just know."
The conversation continued into a little more clarity, and we shared memories from our old house watching the graceful, softest-grey little pairs milling around on the ground in our back yard. I recalled when once there was a single dove making its usual rounds, and this was unusual, and I wondered what it would do having apparently lost it's life-mate. Sometimes, as we have noticed before, these simple creatures offer a most beautiful portrayal of the very best things in life - pointing to and echoing the more perfected human experiences of virtue. This current bird was near its mate, and they've made a nest in the old pear tree - happily for us granting easy observation through our kitchen windows.
Our son was simply remembering seeing this type of bird more often on the ground, though what he answered at first satisfied us for good reason. It may not be much of a thing to say, to "just know because you know" - but it later struck us as profound, reflecting the kind of way we've come to see things especially over the last several years. Akin to poetic knowledge - in some ways the sense of "just knowing" things reflects the combination of knowledge based in common sense, intuition, imaginative insight, memory, and reason connected especially to simple experience of the real. When you are in touch with reality, you are more capable of knowing things unmediated, undistracted. The Gradgrinds of the world can apply science and the strictest of factual stricture to all, and sometimes to apparent proficiency; however more often we are reminded that a childlike and less sophisticated approach (blossoming organically out of the simple experience of a thing) yields a more lasting and sensible knowledge, bound to a worldview steeped in faith, towards wisdom. We don't eschew instruction or guidance or direction, and certainly not books; we just try at all costs to avoid "murdering to dissect" in the ways of learning.
Incidentally, and perhaps related - at least in the matter of natural beauty and the gifts of wonder this life avails - we had taken some of our church's old Easter lilies last year and put them in the ground. Most people told us they won't flower again, it's a waste of time, but we let the green stalks die off late in autumn and cut them to the ground. This spring, they sprung up again, and just this week we were gifted with the first of many beautiful blossoms to come. In this weary world it is a welcome sign of hope - especially as we come to the end of Mary's month of May, celebrate the descent of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost tomorrow, and begin the magnificent month dedicated the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June. These lilies sing like small lovely trumpets and point as signs to Him, to Whom we should turn our hearts. May He reign in glory, and may we always recognize, adore, and serve Him in a world raging against His most beautiful heart!
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen, Alleluia! We have spent the last weeks feasting and enjoying the joys that come at Eastertime - abundance after famine, so to speak, in big and little ways. Our oldest boy was here for a couple of beautiful weeks, making the house seem whole again and filling our happy cups to overflowing. And never before had hot coffee, cinnamon rolls, and bacon tasted so good as on Easter Sunday morn after trying Lenten days, the sufferings of Holy Week, and the final long and holy Vigil night. The late frosts and violent storms have given way to Spring - embodying the life Christ's glorious Resurrection brings.
Earlier in Lent, I had begged the Blessed Virgin to save our fig trees whose early foliage, among many other shrubs and trees, had been killed off in a freeze. For weeks I lamented the bare and blackened branches behind Our Lady in the garden, then one day we saw that little green buds were once again emerging. Whether the trees will bear fruit remains to be seen, but at least the boughs will be green - a timely and revivifying balm for the soul after each dark and cold winter. Also, the puppy had destroyed the first blooming rose that had come just in time for Easter; in the moment it was hard to see that "this too shall pass" - and yet, as my husband had predicted, another bud blossomed in all its delicate beauty - a wonderful, fleeting nature's gold we should cherish while it lasts. Relatedly, we have taken in a baby buckling goat this week, bottle feeding and caring for this wee little thing that we hope will help us to expand our goat adventure in the future. Remember that instead of hoped-for kids we got baby chicks last year? At the moment it is good to reflect that, even if none of our best ideas ever come to perfect fruition or at the time we expect or desire, the best fruits tend to come a bit unexpectedly, and anyway the virtues that come of hard work and prayerful, faithful labor make everything worthwhile.
A primary part of our Easter celebrations manifested in our annual St. George Fest - a day of praying, feasting, good-natured competition (in an obstacle course race), a St. George play, music, and smore's. This year the weather was perfect - the sun shone and the skies were blue and the surroundings verdant - there were no big injuries and there were no insects to be seen. Children and adults ran the course in good cheer, traversing trails, climbing over the wall, splashing through the shallow waters of the creek, crawling through tunnels, throwing axes, hauling tree trunks, shooting arrows, running the pine-cone-bomb gauntlet, and finally thrusting a pine-pole spear into the dreaded dragon (the mulch pile) to finish. While we celebrate Christ's ultimate triumph over death, we emulate His models in figures like St. George, who took up the cross and vanquished the evil of his day. There is always a sublime balance in the fallen world; no longer in Eden, we mustn't let our guard completely down. The Church implores us to shout with joy and in the same moment to spurn all that is hostile to Christ. The happiness of the world is not the joy of heaven, may we be graced to discern the difference! And our glad moments and victories here are to be tempered in knowledge that it is all for His glory, not our own. Non nobis Domine, we sing. Sed nomini, tuo da Gloriam!
We look forward to our next gathering soon, in honor of Mary in the month of May. A processional litter on which to carry her statue will be covered with flowers to honor her, the Mother filled with grace, who ever points and leads us to the Savior. Today, that single soft-pink rose salutes her, and provides a lesson enough for the day.
This morning we found that our dear old family dog, Maxi, had died during the night. She was over ten years old, had been a great part of our children's lives, and was a very good dog. She will be missed, to say the least. It made for a sad morning with a bit of a scramble to drop all plans and deal with God's gift instead.
We had to wait til dawn to find a spot to bury her, deciding on a little area out of the main thoroughfare, near to a small patch of pine woods in a clearing to the left of the goat pen, away from the house but not too far away, and without the additional encumbrance of rocks and roots which makes digging - already a heavy task especially given the reason - extra burdensome. We only had to contend with red Georgia clay and a little layer of white crumbly rock at some point, and dug til we felt satisfied, and were too worn out to dig any more. It was a family affair - our oldest boy away at school happened to call while we were digging, so he shared as best he could in the moment - and naturally tears were shed (we thought she might hang on for a couple years more after all) but in the end all is well. A hard piece of life but one good for the soul, surely, as we were all, each in our own way, plunged unexpectedly into reflections on mortality - which can, if God blesses us, be a very good thing.
A couple of months ago we had, with help, replaced all the purple martin houses that had blown off in last year's storms. This time we installed stronger wire so they'd hang to last (we live in a bit of a severe thunderstorm belt), and as fate would have it the night after we rehung the martin homes we had a windstorm! Thankfully in the morning the nests hadn't budged, and we were all glad. The martins spend several months with us and migrate south for about the other half of the year, so we got things ready just in time for the scouts to come through and find everything in order. We waited a few weeks in some trepidation as we weren't sure if we'd missed the window for the scouts - when one day while visiting with family outside we spied three martins circling over and over again, for at least twenty minutes, high above the nests on the pole in the north field. Hooray! Before we knew it the whole group of martins had returned, and we felt grateful for having the opportunity to provide them shelter. With their return, we have poured much thought and effort into our son's upcoming return home for his Easter break. Lent is already a time of reflective and concerted preparation involving sacrifice; this year's Lent had seemed even more so - more full of sacrifice, more full of anticipation, more full of the need to prepare for something special. God added a small extra to our food for thought this morning as well as to our physical tasks at hand, may He always be praised!
Mid morning, after the difficult task of burying our beloved family dog was done, we trudged back toward the house carrying shovels and tools with mud-caked boots and lightly tear-stained faces. Gazing up we saw a beautiful blue sky, bright with the morning sun and embellished with soft, lovely white clouds, all over a landscape of lush and green spring-life of verdant grass, little field flowers, and trees covered with blossoms and new leaves. Our goats were full of greeting, the chickens and roosters noisily hailed the morn, the puppy played in the back yard. Birds of all kinds were flitting about and singing, and way overhead, wheeling and wheeling, were numbers of twittering purple martins, recalling us to the happy homecoming that awaits those of good will. Our time here is short; what shall we do with our time? God bless our work and keep us on His path!
"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!
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!
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.