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Revealing Beauty and Saintly Relationships: The Feast of the Visitation

Rhonda Ortiz

Giotto, The Visitation, via WikiCommons, public domain.

Giotto, The Visitation, via WikiCommons, public domain.

From Seeing Beyond Depression by Jean Vanier:

Loving someone does not simply mean doing things for them; it is much more profound. To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth, and their importance; it is to understand them, understand their cries and their body language; it is to rejoice in their presence, spend time in their company and communicate with them. To love is to live a heart-to-heart relationship with another, giving to and receiving from each other (19).

This is how Mary loved Elizabeth. It's also how she continues to love each of us.

As a convert, it took me a long time to understand my relationship to Mary and the saints as just that - a human relationship. Human relationships take time; they're also reciprocal.

Because they are in heaven, the saints for their part are more present to us than if they had been our contemporaries here on earth. It's hard to believe, of course, because we can't see them. But they see us, and their friendship with us has a depth that only the Beatific Vision can give; they love because they see Love Himself.

On our part, however, these friendships take time. My friendship with Mary has been a slow, uphill battle. After all, we were estranged until I was 24 years old. After my conversion I placed high expectations on myself to love Mary as I "ought," which resulted in what you might expect: scruples. Had I been patient with myself as Mary had been patient with me, I may have spared myself a good deal of stress.

Now, she and I sit down over a cup of coffee and chat. Affection is there, and I know that the more I spend time with her, the greater my love will grow. After all, like Vanier says, Mary loves by showing me my beauty, my worth, and my importance; she rejoices in my presence because I'm her friend and daughter, slowly being transformed into the likeness of her Son.

The Scrupulous Mother: Symptoms and Suggestions

Rhonda Ortiz

via Shutterstock.

via Shutterstock.

Do you obsessively worry about your parenting prowess? Do you constantly second-guess your decisions? Do you envy others in their “chill” approach to parenting? Do you wish you weren’t plagued by so many doubts and compulsive attempts to be the perfect parent?

If so, you might be experiencing scrupulosity. Welcome to the club!

What is a scruple? St. Alphonsus Liguori explains in his book Moral Theology that a conscience is scrupulous when, for a frivolous reason and without rational basis, there is a frequent fear of sin even though in reality there is no sin at all.

A scruple is a defective understanding of something. A scruple is when you look at your actions and think:

“That’s sinful. Was I sinful in doing that? Should I confess it? I think it must be mortal sin! What would Dr. Guru do? Or the other Dr. Guru? Maybe I should sign Junior up for Underwater Ballet lessons—that would make everything better…”

…whereas other people think:

“That’s not a sin! You’re exaggerating its significance! It’s morally neutral! You’re doing the best you can, honey! Let up on yourself! Your kid is going to be fine. Bless your heart, but you need to look up the definition of mortal sin again.”


Photos That Probably Will Only Interest Other Gardeners and Colleen Duggan

Rhonda Ortiz

My dear friend, writing partner, and photographer extraordinaire Colleen Duggan spent some time this week teaching us less-camera-happy people how to take better pictures: use the rule of thirds, use the frame, use the camera you have, turn it to manual focus, try new angles, etc. Loved both the tips and (as always) her lovely pics. 

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I headed out to the yard the other day with my camera to see what I could do. Colleen, these pictures are for you.

p.s. I only tried the manual focus once. Next time.
p.p.s. I haven't cropped these at all.

I don't know if you can see it, but that's my reflection in the middle of the water droplet.

I don't know if you can see it, but that's my reflection in the middle of the water droplet.

Photography is amazing. My yard is so much more interesting close-up.

See what I mean?

At Least I Got a Yummy Chai Latte

Rhonda Ortiz

You know you're scrupulous if . . .

. . . you buy yourself a drink you didn't need or really even want from the grocery store Starbucks in order to look like a paying customer after your kids have had free cookies from the bakery, even though you ARE a paying customer because you JUST paid for a prescription, DayQuil, and children's Motrin, BUT you paid for said items at the pharmacy counter before the ingestion of said cookies and therefore have nothing left in the cart that would indicate to the Scary Grocery Store Authorities that you are not a complete and total cookie moocher.

. . . AND when I got to the car, I thought, "Dang it! There you go again!"

St. Dominic, Peeta Mellark, and Holy Laughter

Rhonda Ortiz

St. Dominic, via WikiCommons, CC0.

St. Dominic, via WikiCommons, CC0.

One distinctive trait among Dominicans is their laughter. At the time of their founding 800 years ago, laughter was viewed with pious suspicion, per St. Benedict’s prohibition against laughter in his Rule.

But St. Dominic was known for always being cheerful and affable, and many of the early Dominicans, in particular Bl. Jordan of Saxony, were known for their playfulness and good-humored jokes. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that:

“A man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states” (ST II II, q.168 a.4).

That’s not to say the early Dominicans engaged in raucous or belittling behavior. When Dominic laughed, “he did so with the true delight of the Holy Spirit."

Cover image courtesy WikiCommons, CC0. Copyright belongs to publisher and cover artist.

Cover image courtesy WikiCommons, CC0. Copyright belongs to publisher and cover artist.

The ability to make a joke without hurting others or oneself is a gift and a virtue. And while our culture has mostly lost sight of the value of this gift, I am happy to see that one person, at least, hasn't. From Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay (Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 3):

The tube's cover's simple to unlatch. A wide ladder with rubber treads on the steps allows for a swift, easy descent into the bowels of the city [the Capitol]. We gather at the foot of the ladder, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dim strips of lights, breathing in the mixture of chemicals, mildew, and sewage.

Pollux, pale and sweaty, reaches out and latches on to Castor's wrist. Like he might fall over if there isn't someone to steady him.

"My brother worked down here after he became an Avox," says Castor. Of course. Who else would they get to maintain these dank, evil-smelling passages mined with pods? "Took five years before we were able to buy his way up to the ground level. Didn't see the sun once."

Under better conditions, on a day with fewer horrors and more rest, someone would surely know what to say. Instead we all stand there for a long time trying to formulate a response.

Finally, Peeta turns to Pollux. "Well, then you just became our most valuable asset." Castor laughs and Pollux manages a smile.

We're halfway down the first tunnel when I realize what was so remarkable about the exchange. Peeta sounded like his old self, the one who could always think of the right thing to say when nobody else could. Ironic, encouraging, a little funny, but not at anyone's expense. I glance back at him as he trudges along under his guards, Gale and Jackson, his eyes fixed on the ground, his shoulders hunched forward. So dispirited. But for a moment, he was really here. (Ch. 21)

Peeta's comment proves the inverse of St. Thomas' description above: the humorless man is a burden to others, but Peeta's playful joke lightens the burden that Pollux and Castor are feeling and makes it possible for the entire group to escape into the sewers.

But also clear throughout the book series is that Peeta rarely makes a joke at another's expense, as Katniss says. The few times he does (I'm thinking of teasing Katniss after Johanna's antics in the elevator) only makes him the object of Katniss' resentment. Peeta is good at heart and making fun of others isn't his modus operandi.

So Suzanne Collins gets it. I'm glad.

Good Advice for Any Storyteller

Rhonda Ortiz

via WikiCommons, CC0

via WikiCommons, CC0

From an interview with filmmaker Whit Stillman:

Your approach to editing is quite striking. Your characters have this very composed manner, but what adds a dose of realism is that you often cut into a scene late and cut out early — so that the conversations are often in medias res, and we get the sense that we really have walked in on life proceeding, like we’re catching a documentary glimpse of it.

Absolutely. It makes things much more interesting if the audience has to fill in some of the blanks. It keeps them on their toes. You get a lot of grief from development people about this: “Well, people won’t understand what’s happening in the scene.” But if you found some way to explain it at the beginning of the scene, then the rest of the scene would be completely boring. Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter and later producer, would say that the most boring lady at a party is the one who tells you everything. Don’t tell people everything; let them figure it out.

On Wanting to Hide the Problem of Scruples

Rhonda Ortiz

via WikiCommons, CC0

via WikiCommons, CC0

This is an important point for those of us who experience scruples and anxiety in our spiritual lives. From A Thousand Frightening Fantasies: Understanding and Healing Scrupulosity and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by William Van Ornum, Ph.D.:

Scrup/OCD embarrasses them. It has taken sufferers of OCD longer to "come out of the closet" than people with other disorders. For example, most of us understand depression. Alcoholism is an extreme of normal drinking. Because of the strange and peculiar nature of many OCD symptoms, sufferers hesitate to acknowledge them. I have even heard of cases of people in therapy for several years who never mentioned their OCD to their therapist. Instead, they talked about the many problems of their life. People with OCD or Scrup/OCD frequently think others will judge them as weird or crazy. Because of this, they guard their secret emotional life.

We live in an age that deemphasizes or disrespects traditional religious beliefs. As a group, mental health professionals lack openness to religious experience. Some brand even normal religious practices as sick. Because people with Scrup/OCD know this, is it any wonder that they remain secretive? (34)

No, it's not a wonder. Catholics already get a bad rap for their Catholic Guilt; many of us would rather not confirm the stereotype by sharing about our scruples.

The people we're supposed to look to - priests and medical professionals - are ill-equipped. Many priests lack training in helping the scrupulous, and the therapist who could help a Catholic faithfully (faithfully!) navigate Catholic waters is a rarity. 

And no, we don't want to be ridiculed or poo-poohed.

Yet, this is no excuse for not seeking help. The very act of discussing our scrupulosity with our priest or medical professionals raises awareness. So talk about it. If they are unable or unwilling to help, find someone who will. But be brave and seek help!

The Men Who Would Be King

Rhonda Ortiz

From Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America's king.

She thought: Americans won't obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn't anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. "Our father's God, author of liberty—" The laws of Nature and of Nature's God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

Laura had no time to think any further. Carrie was wondering why she stood so still, and Pa was saying, "This way, girls! There's the free lemonade!"

Little Town on the Prairie, Ch. 8, pp. 76-77.

Little House on the Prairie was released November 20, 1941, a few weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. The state of the world must have been weighing heavy on Wilder's shoulders.

In the wake of The Donald, I've been thinking about kingship—what it is, what it is in us that desires it, what it is in us that desire to be a king.

Nothing in today's current political situation should come as a surprise. My husband said some years ago after all the Obama-as-Messiah hullabaloo that the next Messiah figure would probably come from the Republican side. Quod erat demonstrandum, etc.

Kingship is written into our persons. As Christians, we are declared priest, prophet, and king in our baptism. But God calls some people to a lifelong, vocational expression of these as well, whose purpose in life is to be a priest, a prophet, or a king. These people are incarnational stand-ins for and/or reminders of God Himself. Some medieval theologians argued that the coronation of kings and queens was a Sacrament. Even today the Oil of Catechumens is used for coronations.

However, America is a democratic republic. We elect our political leaders. We don't have kings who inherit their nation.  Therefore we lack a clear notion of what a king is.

Yet there's something in us—in our human nature—that wants one. I'm reminded of The Lord of the Rings and its appeal among Americans (if the box office sales were any indication). Peter Kreeft points out that the three main characters fit the three roles: Frodo as priest, Gandalf as prophet, and Aragon as king. All three must play their part in order to achieve the defeat of Mordor.

What's interesting to me is that we readers and movie watchers so easily rally around Aragorn, who claims a right to the throne of Gondor not by democratic election, but by some other rule that's written deeply into the culture of Middle Earth and also our own. We Americans don't have this; we're a nation of revolutionaries and immigrants who've said good riddance to our various kings and queens. And yet we love good, courageous Aragorn and want him to be king. It's part of the story's resolution, and it satisfies.

So, are we missing something? George III was no fictional Aragorn, but still, his kingly vocation at least pointed to God's kingship. In cutting us off from the king, did the Founding Fathers misunderstand or overlook this deep human desire? Like the prophet Samuel, did they overestimate people's ability to trust in God as King? Are we, in a sense, adrift?

"Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies."

John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776.

Image Credits---for some reason the captions keep disappearing:
First image: John Trumull, 
General Washington Resigns His Commission, via WikiCommons, CC0. Second image: Pinched from Facebook. I thought it was funny.

Happy Feast Day! 13 Quick Facts about St. Catherine of Siena

Rhonda Ortiz

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena!

Courtesy WikiCommons, CC0.

Courtesy WikiCommons, CC0.

If you're unfamiliar with this marvelous saint, I highly suggest you become un-unfamiliar. Once again I recommend this biography by Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset.

Quick facts to whet your palette:

  1. Catherine had a naturally cheerful disposition. We also surmise that she was her mother's favorite child.
  2. Speaking of, Catherine's mother was loving but overbearing. Monna Lapa did not understand her daughter or her daughter's vocation and her tears and interference often tested Catherine's patience.
  3. Catherine's father was more understanding of her strange vocation; he made provision for her to live as a hermit for a time in a 3-by-9 foot room at the back of their house - a luxury for a medieval middle-class family. 
  4. Catherine was a mystic early in her life.
  5. Though Catherine was a Dominican, she was not a nun. Instead, Catherine was part of a Sienese Dominican tertiary group known as the Mantellate. Until Catherine joined, the Mantellate only included widows among their ranks; Catherine's desire to take vows of virginity as a Mantellate caused quite a stir.
  6. She also caused quite a stir by traipsing unladylike around Siena, and then the world, doing works of mercy: feeding the poor, tending the sick, and admonishing Popes.
  7. Consequently, a lot of people distrusted her. She didn't let it stop her.
  8. Catherine is commonly credited with convincing Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome.
  9. Catherine had the stigmata, though hidden.
  10. Though she could not read, Catherine wanted to pray the Divine Office so badly that God gave her the grace of doing so.
  11. Catherine thought her inability to eat anything other than the Eucharist was a trial, not a super-cool miracle.
  12. Catherine wrote to everyone. Thanks to the ready assistance of several secretaries, she kept up a lively correspondence with hundreds of people, from world leaders to friends back home.
  13. Pope Paul VI named Catherine a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

Bonus: in honor of the 800th anniversary of the Order, all members of the Dominican family who participate in a Jubilee celebration or make a pilgrimage to the churches and chapels of the Dominican family can receive a Plenary Indulgence. And the feast of St. Catherine is a good day to do so! We don't have anything Dominican-y around here, but my husband rearranged his work schedule today so that I can at least get to Mass. Good man.

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!