Sunday, July 28, 2013


Blogging Challenge: Day 7!

About this time every Sunday, I start to feel vaguely uneasy and preoccupied thinking about the impending work week.  

Part of this is because I don't particularly like my job, and lately it's been significantly less rewarding and more stressful than usual.

But part of it, I think, is that the place of work both in our society's view of a full human life and in my own life are a little unbalanced right now.

Almost every day when I get home, I experience the cumulative effect of a day spent in that absolutely mind-crushing combination of psychological stress and intellectual boredom that seems to be the hallmark of a typical office environment.  I feel exhausted, drained and unable to focus, and about all I want to do is flop down on the couch and watch TV or mindlessly thumb through articles online.

Of course, when I do, the effect is not a feeling of being rested and refreshed.  If anything I feel more exhausted and nervy and less able to cope with the next day's stress.  Why?  I was tired, and needed relaxation, right?

Wrong.  What I needed, and what so few people actually get, is leisure, as defined by Josef Pieper in his phenomenal little book Leisure, the Basis of Culture:

The simple ”break” from work - the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer - is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The ”break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide "new strength” for "new work,” as the word ”refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.
….Now leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work - although it does indeed bring such things!…Leisure is not justified in making the functionary as "trouble-free” in operation as possible, with minimum "downtime,” but rather in keeping the functionary human…and this means that the human being does not disappear into the parceled-out world of his limited work-a-day function, but instead remains capable of taking in the world as a whole, and thereby to realize himself as a being who is oriented toward the whole of existence. 
This is why the ability to be "at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work. Only in such authentic leisure can the "door into freedom” be opened out of the confinement of that "hidden anxiety,” which a certain perceptive observer has seen as the distinctive character of the working world, for which "employment and unemployment are the two poles of an existence with no escape.”

Since I really need a reminder about this right now, I think I'm going to set myself a good old-fashioned high school reading and writing assignment.  I'll read a few pages of Pieper each week and do a synopsis here, with probably some chunky block quotes, then consider its application.  And then, I dunno...have a feast, maybe.  We'll see.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


The Pope has a call for us, and it is the call of Christ - the radical, noisy, messy, scandalous call of the God-Man.

I wrote earlier this week that I was about ready to sock anyone who implied that Benedict was less loving than Francis.  But guess what?  If you're spending a lot of time grumbling to yourself about Francis, you are missing just as much.

There is intense continuity between Benedict and Francis, and the reason for that is that both of them are speaking the Gospel, a Gospel that is the opposite of narrow or tidy or easy to quantify.  Our God is so great that he encompasses all of the riches that both Benedict and Francis have shown us and infinitely more.

Benedict's incredible act of humility and trust, borne out of his deep connection with the will of God both for himself and the Church, had a purpose.  I suggest we start listening for it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Shakespearean Edition

Blogging Challenge: Day 5

1. I mentioned that this is the Summer of Shakespeare at our house.  Last night I got the chance to see the production of King Lear that my husband is performing in for the third time.  Incredible play, incredible production.  I wasn't that familiar with Lear, though I saw it once a few years ago at the big repertory theatre in town.  This recent production has so much more impact.  Part of that is packing a gigantic Shakespearean tragedy into a tiny 60-seat store-front theatre, but much more of it has to do with the performances, directing and design.

2.  Speaking of Lear, my new idea is to write something (maybe a short play, maybe a novella) inspired by Lear about a family struggling with the challenges of an elderly parent with early to mid stage dementia.  I've been around those particular challenges quite a bit in my almost three years working at a retirement community, and in seeing the play these past few times have recognized a lot of very common family dynamics that often result.  My husband's production allowed the characters of Gonneril and Reagan, Lear's eldest daughters, to be a little more sympathetic than in most productions, emphasizing the strain that their father's past abuse and current mental health have put on them.  It would be interesting to explore further.

3. My husband has also started rehearsals for a production of Hamlet that will take place at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.  This venue is a replica of a classical Italian villa, with an enclosed courtyard and extensive gardens.  It's an incredible setting for the play, and it really sounds like they are taking advantage of the distinctive features of the building and grounds in their staging.  I'm excited.

4. Shakespeare project #3 is a short film adaptation of Richard II, one of the lesser-known and seldom performed histories.  My husband is playing Harry Percy, who in later plays is known as Hotspur.  My favorite history is Henry IV, Part I in which the fiery, somewhat rash, but brave and passionate Hotspur is defeated in his quest for the crown by Prince Hal, the lazy, smug wastrel who later becomes Henry V, of "Crispin's Day" fame.  Or at least that's my read on the play.  Other interpretations have something to do with Hal's development into a king and hero, blahblahblah.  HOTSPUR.

5.  We're currently watching "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian TV show that ran from 2003-2006.  The story centers around a Shakespearean theatre festival (inspired by the Stratford Festival in Ontario) and the various people that make up its little community: actors, administrators, corporate sponsors, critics.  I've seen it before, but it's just as good the second or third time around.  It's whip-smart and hilarious - each season is built around the production of one of Shakespeare's major tragedies, and themes from the play being produced shape the plot.  Highly recommended.

6.  Has anyone seen the new Joss Whedon Much Ado About Nothing yet?  We were excited about it but haven't found the time, and now I'm afraid it's probably gone from our local art house theatre.  I was in a student production of Much Ado in high school and loved the Branagh film adaptation, but have never seen it professionally staged.  I'm curious to see what a director who has spent most of his time on vampires and superheroes will do with it.  To be fair, superheroes are awesome and The Avengers was one of the best superhero movies of all time.

7.  For a few years, Milwaukee had its own professional theatre company focusing on Shakespeare's works.  Then the funding was pulled for one of its major grants, and it folded.  It was discouraging when it happened, but in the last few years a number of Milwaukee theatre companies have risen up to fill the void.  Clearly we as a city have a passion for classical theatre.  One of our most active local critics recently wrote on his blog that he had seen 4 Shakespeare productions in 8 days.  Just another sign of the way the arts are exploding in our beautiful city.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Too Many Doors

Blogging Challenge: Day 4

I heard once that, according to the principles of Feng Shui, it's bad to have too many entrances to an office space.  I'm guessing it has to do with energy escaping or the flow of chi or something.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1905
Whether or not you give any credence to Feng Shui, I can personally attest to the fact that working in a room that sits at a sort of public crossroads is not ideal.  My work space adjoins three other offices and the hallway, and I also serve as the gatekeeper for the CEO.  This means that there is a steady flow of traffic through my office, plus a constant multi-layer buzz of noise and activity coming from the adjoining offices.

My boss has sometimes called me "the water cooler" because my coworkers have a tendency to gather in little gaggles in front of my desk and chat.

Some people would probably love being at the center of things and always up on the latest office gossip, but this work environment leaves an introvert like me feeling jumpy and exhausted by the end of the day.  It makes me less productive, too - I need a certain amount of quiet and privacy in order to focus and do my job well.  I often wish my office had fewer open doors.

Pope Francis has talked a lot, directly and indirectly, about opening doors.  Here he is in one of his homilies back in May: 

We think today of Jesus, who always wants us all to be closer to Him, we think of the Holy People of God, a simple people, who want to get closer to Jesus and we think of so many Christians of goodwill who are wrong and that instead of opening a door they close the door of goodwill ... So we ask the Lord that all those who come to the Church find the doors open, find the doors open, open to meet this love of Jesus. We ask this grace. 

This is an important message, especially in an era when tribalism and "us vs. them" seems to be the prevailing narrative. It's good to be reminded that, when it comes to reaching out in love, the Church can't possibly open too many doors. 

However, I think the way in which each of us individually opens the doors of his heart will look different.

I've been thinking about this as I read coverage of WYD.  Pope Francis is becoming notorious for giving his handlers and security people headaches by, essentially, opening doors - seeking out closer contact with those he meets and making impromptu changes to his schedule in order to reach more people.

One example was his last-minute addition of a pilgrimage to Aparecida on what was scheduled to be a day of rest without any scheduled commitments on Benedict's original itinerary.

This change may relate partially to the difference in physical health between Benedict and Francis, but it probably also has something to do with their personalities.  As an introvert, Benedict's self-knowledge and prudence would lead him to plan in the appropriate amount of rest and time alone to allow him to be fully present and effective as a loving pastor.

As an introvert, I know that I become less effective and less able to deal with people calmly and helpfully if  I'm working in an environment with constant interpersonal interactions.  They wear me out and don't allow me to recharge.  The same applies more broadly to the Christian life and my personal pursuit of holiness.  Although it is my responsibility to push my comfort level to a certain extent, it is also my responsibility to work with my personality, both strengths and weaknesses, to determine how I can live out my calling as a disciple of Christ most effectively.

At this point, I'm about ready to sock anyone who implies that Benedict is less loving and open than Francis.  But that doesn't mean the two of them won't come across differently, or that some people might respond differently to their distinct personalities.  As Simcha Fisher noted recently, none of us is the whole Church, and something one person doesn't respond to might be just what another needs to hear.

We need to recognize how each of our two recent Popes, in his own unique way, opens the door to God's love.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All the Books

Blogging Challenge: Day 3
Sometimes I'm afraid that I've read all the books.

It's not that I think I've read all the good books.  I've read quite a few of the great classics of the western canon, but there are many, many more that I haven't read.  Most of Dickens for instance.  Or, you know...Madame Bovary. 

It's not that I think I've read every book I'll ever like, either.  I just finished a recently-written, Pulitzer-winning novel about an immigrant family from India and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It wasn't a classic or a work of genius, but it was well-written and a good read.

It's more a fear that I've read all the books that will ever be my favorites.  I mean the books that I've read literally dozens of time, that I can practically recite from memory, with characters that feel more real to me than a lot of real people that I've known.  I mean the authors with whom I feel a strange personal connection and who have informed my artistic, philosophical and even spiritual worldviews almost as much as my own parents.

I can't go back and read Til We Have Faces for the first time, or the Confessions, or Brideshead, or Gaudy Night.  I can't re-discover the works of Shakespeare or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Graham Greene.

These books will always be a part of my life.  I'll buy new used paperback copies every few years because mine will have fallen apart and lost their covers.  I'll take them to bed with me when I can't sleep, read them to my kids, lend them to friends.  I'll still cry when I re-read them decades from now.

But it's been quite a few years now since a new book was added to that list.  It almost seems like that chapter (so to speak) of my life is over.  I miss it.

This all sounds kind of morose.  I'd be curious to hear from people a little older than I am about their reading experiences at different stages in their lives.  Did you continue to occasionally have that experience of discovery and kinship with a previously unread author?  Or were you pretty much tapped out by the age of 28, and had to think about reading a little differently?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: Promised Land

 Blogging Challenge: Day 2

Promised Land came out last year, but we just got around to watching it.  It's co-written by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, who also star along with Frances McDormand.  The story follows a representative of Big Natural Gas, Inc. (okay, "Global Solutions") as he makes a preliminary visit to a farming community to try to convince its residents to lease their land for hydraulic drilling for natural gas ("fracking").
  • My first reaction on hearing a description of this movie was that it sounded a little dull and preachy.  I wasn't entirely wrong: despite the "twist" at the end (which spoiler etiquette dictates I can't reveal), it followed some pretty well-worn plot tropes and was quite heavy-handed in its message.  My main exposure to the whole fracking controversy has been the documentary Gasland, and I haven't really done any research into opposing viewpoints.  However, unless the doc is based on pure falsehood, it would certainly seem that fracking is at best a risky technology and at worst an environmental and public health catastrophe and a deliberate exploitation of impoverished families for corporate interests.  Still, fictional explorations of ideas like this are always best if they are secondary to great story-telling.
  • On the other hand, the protagonist was actually the representative of the "bad guys," and the story of how he got there was pretty compelling.  The fact that the farming lifestyle has become unsustainable and dependent on big industries and government handouts is a heart-breaker of which I wasn't fully aware.  I did find his big conversion at the end to be a little implausible, though.  I can certainly buy that the discovery of unethical practices by your employer might lead you to quit your job, but usually not by way of a beautifully crafted tear-jerker of a speech in front of hundreds of your employer's screwed-over constituents.  But it's the movies, after all.
  • Speaking of farming, I wish I was more moved by the tradition of farm life and its place in American history and mythos.  My grandmother grew up on a farm, so it is part of my heritage, even though I've been a city kid all my life.  This movie had a lot of scenes of people talking about their land and how it had been passed down for five generations as well as numerous montages of cows juxtaposed with American flags set to stirring music.  I simply don't respond to that, somehow.
  • I'm in no way immune to John Krasinski's charms - in fact, I think what he and Jenna Fischer created on The Office with the Jim/Pam romance is one of the reasons the show has become so iconic.  He's drily funny and deadpan and charming again in this movie, but - sheesh - is he a one-trick pony.  The character might as well have been named Jim.  Except that Jim wasn't such a sanctimonious jerk, so I suppose that required a step outside the memory-foam-levels-of-comfort zone.
  • This all sounds like I liked the movie a lot less than I did, which was some.  I particularly liked Matt Damon's performance, with his customary level of craft and nuance.  It really seems like he's due for that big Oscar-winning role one of these days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Text

Blogging Challenge: Day 1

At our house the past few months have been dubbed the Summer of Shakespeare.  My husband is working on three different productions of Shakespeare's work - simultaneously - which means we've been absurdly busy but enjoyably steeped in some of the greatest plays ever written.

Forbes Masson as Feste in Michael Boyd’s 2005 
production at the Royal Shakespeare Company
I've seen more live Shakespeare over the years than most people my age, and have always been most affected by productions where the power and beauty of the text itself was given pride of place.

I don't have a problem per se with high production values or even some well-placed spectacle.  The problem is when these things pre-empt, distract from or even mask the power of the text.

Same goes for any given concept or interpretative lens - it has to work within the text rather than fighting against it.   If you're going to set A Midsummer Night's Dream on a lunar colony, you sure better have a textual justification for it.

One of the most powerful productions of Shakespeare I ever saw was in London in 2005 - an RSC production of Twelfth Night (maybe my favorite of the comedies).  There were a lot of things that made the show especially moving, not least the exquisite music played on period instruments.  But one of the things I remember most about it was the way the director chose to highlight the character of Feste, the fool.  It became really his story, almost more than Viola's.  Somehow this was accomplished not by trampling on the text but by drawing out certain things that slip under the radar in a lot of more conventional productions, particularly in Feste's songs.

If done right, productions like that one can honor a centuries-old play and its playwright not by deconstructing but by shedding light on previously hidden facets of the work.


I haven't been writing as much as I'd like, so I think I'm going to take on this "7 Posts in 7 Days" challenge.

If you're here for the first time, check out my introduction for what I'm all about.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Yesterday I went to Cor Jesu, a startlingly cool weekly event organized by the Vocations Director of the archdiocese, some other recently-minted priests, and a gang of Spirit-infused young adults from around Milwaukee.  The concept is perfect in its simplicity: an hour of Eucharistic Adoration, followed by Mass.  The event started small, but over the course of a year or two has outgrown a Newman Center chapel and is now bursting a large church at the seams.

I've been shortchanging my prayer life a little amidst our recent busy-ness, so I was almost viscerally aware of the need for some alone time with Jesus.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you're starving and would eat anything, God sets a gourmet meal in front of you?  That's kind of what this felt like.  For the first time in a pretty spiritually dry few months, He let me feel the intensity of His presence.  Specifically, there seemed to be one word he really wanted me to hear: healing.

I realized that I'd never thought much about what Jesus spent a lot of his time on earth doing: healing people.  I just kept getting hit over the head with how much the world needs this healing right now.  We are individually wounded, and the Body of Christ is wounded by divisions, scandals, and an overall sense of weariness in the face of this age's specific spiritual battles.

This word, healing, just kept coming to the forefront of my meditation all during the hour of Adoration.

Then Mass started, and the Gospel reading was this:

Jesus summoned his Twelve disciples
and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out
and to cure every disease and every illness.
The names of the Twelve Apostles are these:
first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew;
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John;
Philip and Bartholomew,
Thomas and Matthew the tax collector;
James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus;
Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot
who betrayed Jesus.

Jesus sent out these Twelve after instructing them thus,
“Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.
Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Did you catch that?  I didn't at first, and then Cardinal Harvey started his homily.  And it was ALL about healing.  He must have underscored the word healing dozens of time, reminding us that healing was one of the core components of Christ's mission, and that we as his followers are called to be healers as well.  

Often we get really good at imitating the preaching part of Christ's mission, reminding people of the rules, searching out Pharisees to argue with, finding just the right way to drive home a theological zinger.  And this part is important and good.  But it's easy to stop there, to speak the truth and walk away.

That's not what Christ asks of us.  He didn't wait to make sure people fully understood every beautiful and nuanced part of his teaching.  He reached out and touched them.  And after they were strengthened by his touch of healing, some of them were actually strong enough to listen.

Before we talk and teach and confront the world any more, we need to be healers.  We need to be fully present to the world's wounded and diseased in mind, body and spirit, and lay the hands of Christ on them - because he's given us the power to do that!  We can be his hands and his compassionate heart.  Instead of standing at a distance and telling people how they could have prevented getting sick in the first place, we are actually able - and in fact commanded - to lay down next to them, hold them in our arms, and heal them with Christ's miraculous power, which is love.

There's so much more to be said about this, but I'm still processing, and need some time to ponder how I can personally imitate Christ as healer more deeply. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Four Hands

Photo courtesy L'Osservatore Romano
Recently I got slightly irritated by the way an article of mine was edited before being published in the local diocesan newspaper.  Some of the more theological language had been watered down, and the snipping of just a couple of sentences seemed to me to destroy the continuity and flow I'd worked so hard to achieve.

(I know...just a few short weeks ago I was all kinds of excited about my freelance work, and now I'm already griping about editors.  That must mean I'm a Real Journalist now!)

On Friday, Pope Francis released his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei.  The Pope has called it a "work of four hands," acknowledging that much of the work was completed by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict.

As I started reading it this morning, I was struck by the fact that Benedict, who is known for his rich, dense, beautifully crafted theological writing, allowed someone else to take over his almost-completed work, rewrite it with complete freedom, and then sign his name to it.  The amount of humility this must have taken is beyond my current spiritual maturity to comprehend.

There is nothing wrong with taking joy in our achievements, or even with the desire to be recognized for the good work we do.  But it's so easy for this desire to go a step too far and become possessiveness, a sense that if our work can't be on our own terms, we'll just sit on our hands.

Here in the 21st century West, we're culturally conditioned to believe that our work belongs to us and even defines us.  And this doesn't just apply to copyright laws and patents.  We're trained to think in terms of whether our work "fulfills" and "actualizes" us and if it doesn't, we deserve a change.

Obviously there is some truth in that, like in a lot of things that can be misleading.  We should use our gifts, and happiness found in our work is one way that God communicates with us that we've found a good way to do that.

However, if we're only asking how our work fulfills us or makes us feel, we might be forgetting the more important questions, like whether our daily work is fulfilling the duties of our primary vocation and is oriented toward the good of others.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has a vastly different set of obligations than us in terms of the scope of his work, but the principle is the same.  None of our work, even the work we are most proud of, is ultimately our own.

Like Niggle's tree, our work can only reach completion and fulfill its true purpose when surrendered to God for the service of His people.