Aside

Let’s Get Traditional

 I find romance in it and move in circles steeped in it; I’m a girl in love with tradition. Some people say family is loyalty to each other, I suggest that it is the loyalty to tradition that makes you a family. Generation to generation customs are passed down and they become the thing that brings us joy. From what goes on the table at Christmas to where you spend your new years eve, and woe betide any one who comes between a Gallagher and their rightful caterpillar cake on their birthday, or any one of us and that light blue polo. Most importantly we are part of a universal family drenched in ceremonial tradition.  

So I’ve made my point, I love tradition. It’s consistency is secure, its “the living faith of the dead”. Maybe this is why I didn’t do well as the bohemian starving artist I had dreamed of being during college. Many of my heroes scoffed at tradition calling it the jail of creativity and the antidote to innovation, saying that when the mind is secure it begins to decay. Maybe this is why many youth workers steer clear of tradition with their young people. Constantly trying to be creative with the liturgy, this saddens me somewhat. The more I’ve learnt about tradition the more I love it, and this time its not just habit got out of hand, it’s tradition with real meaning. 

I recently learnt about a couple of traditions that got me really excited and I learnt them during a latin mass. Firstly I learnt that the priest puts water in the precious blood to symbolise the water that flowed from His side as He was pierced. Secondly I learnt that the priest puts his amice on his head because it represents a helmet. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians talks about “the armour of God” and so the amice is the helmet which protects the mind from assaults by the devil.  

It’s not often I get to watch a priest vest up, but in the retreat centre were I worked the sacristy was a cupboard so priests would often put on their vestments as I set up the chapel for mass. It always fascinated me about the different layers and the different meanings. It wasn’t until recently, though, that a priest told me about “vesting prayers” as I bugged him about the significance of his amice. He told me that when he puts on his amice he prays “Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.” (Place on me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, so I may overcome the assaults of the devil.)

The catechism, as ever, speaks quite poetically of tradition; calling it a “living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit”.  The catechism tells us that tradition is how the Church breathes in the next generation.

 “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”“The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

So why does the word ‘tradition’ seem to terrify so many people? I remember telling a friend that I had just been to an Extraordinary From Mass. His face dropped when I told him I had really enjoyed it and eventually he came out with “I didn’t realise you were traddy…” as if I had just confessed to enjoying witch hunting of a weekend. On another occasion I remember pulling a mantilla on to my head as I walked into my parish church. Again, I may as well have just popped a wet fish on my head. 

Some times when the older generation sees a young person wearing a mantilla, or indeed enjoying a bit of latin, they react as if we’ve opened the long-lost trunk in the back of the attic and are trying on nanna’s wedding dress. They’re a little taken aback that you found the trunk but they find it quite twee that you think you know what you’re doing. Some of the older generation love it, they see a true sign of personal ownership of faith in the gesture. For others it just makes them angry, I’ve been told that covering my head is a step back for feminism in the Catholic Church. (interestingly only by men.) 

Some praise it, some are cautious, and others are just baffled. So let this blog go some way to explain my personal reasoning for wearing a mantilla, as I think each person’s varies slightly. It began well over a year ago when, in my preparation for lent I began reading the gripping tale of Rachel Held-Evans’ challenge to live a year of ‘Biblical Womanhood’ in which she tackled the virtue of modesty. At the time I wrote about standards of modesty, but what really caught me about this particular section of Rachel’s journey was the fact she covered her head during every prayer. To me it seemed like a little prayer bubble. I love praying in community but I’m often distracted, particularly during adoration, by other people twitching or shuffling, it seemed that this simple gesture of covering your head would keep all of that out (it sounds ridiculous but I find it to be true). Looking back on it, I suppose, it’s similar to the amice in some way, a helmet to protect you from distraction in your prayer. 

At this time I spoke to a friend who was in seminary and I told him that I wanted to cover my head, he told me to back myself. As Easter drew closer I found myself being part of an acting out of the stations of the cross. I was Mary (obviously) and I thought that because I was Mary, I would have to cover my head. After that my mantilla got put away for a little while. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I realised it’s importance to me. In the place where I worked, we’d go in and out of the chapel for prayer several times a day. It’s not until you have those profound moments of prayer, that inescapable realisation of the true presence that you realise, this isn’t just another room in the house. In those moments you realise what the words “this is God’s house” really mean. Not least that, in that chapel over the last three years had been some of the most profound turning points, the really deep moments of conversion of heart. In that place I had, and still do, shed many tears, shared many laughs, many signs of peace and many, many prayers. This place was special, it is the centre of all I did that year and whatever happened in it required a special level of reverence.

I struggle in adoration, they say that creative types aren’t supposed to be made to sit still for too long. Every tiny noise or movement seemed exaggerated in my head. It suddenly dawned on me exactly what I needed, a prayer bubble.

Towards the end of the year I started wearing my mantilla more and more, and it had a strange effect on me. It was like a helmet, when I put it on it reminded me that the place I was sacred. It reminded me that the only focus should be on Him, who bought me here. My mantilla, I feel, became a visible and tangible for me that which I feel in my heart. 

I’ve tried to explain this to people before, when they’ve asked me about wearing my mantilla. Sometimes they don’t really get it.They don’t understand how it helps me to pray and to feel God’s presence, but also they don’t get how my hair could distract others. People say it’s a pretty old-fashioned way of thinking, that, just as it is no longer obscene to have one’s ankles on show, your hair is no longer a cause for attraction and therefore has no place being covered. St. Paul would disagree, and who am I to disagree with St. Paul? 

I nourish my hair (it may not look like it) but if I was to go out for the night, I wouldn’t go out without doing my hair first. So Paul says “if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her” so it only makes sense to cover it, because it is His glory that is our focus. In this small act we reflect, in a tiny and as ever insufficient way, Our Lady. This submission to God’s glory above our own, by taking part in something so deep-rooted in ecclesiastical tradition and in scripture (“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age” – Catechism, boom), the counter-cultural step towards modesty, we can find ourselves coming closer to Our Lady, who in turn brings us closer to Her Son, with each point. 

I don’t think covering my head is as stuck in the past as many people think. More and more I see other women covering their heads, and for many different reasons I assume. I must admit it felt a little strange at first, something that was designed for modesty that quite obviously made me stand out, but once I settled into it and remembered why I wear it, it really did become like a helmet for me. It now stays in my bag always, just incase, even on Copacabana for the Papal Mass, I’ve never seen a mantilla more covered in sand than this one when I got it home!
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I know this is a very specific tradition that I’ve spoken about, but it’s one that I feel really reflects my love for and the importance of tradition. Moreover the importance of asking questions, being ever more curious about our faith, like little children. 

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Obedientia et Pax

I’d been getting a little emotional that John XXIII has been a little over looked in the recent celebrations. The more I read about him, the more I begin to see that he was over looked in his own time also, and many of those who write so fondly about him now say that his ordinariness is what made him so special. I must admit, if it wasn’t for my combined love of Italy and books, I may not have known much about him either. 

I was desperate to go to the canonisation, outwardly because I’d never been to one before, but also because I love Italy and was desperate to go to Rome. The iminent canonisation of two saints and had prompted me to try to read some of JPII’s books, as I was already a large way through Theology of The Body. During my Amazon search JXXIII’s ‘Journey of a Soul’ came up in my recommendations, so I bought it and added it to the bottom of a pile of JPII literature I was reading. A while later I went to see a friend who absolutely raved about the book. I’ve probably mentioned before that I love journals and letters; they speak so so deeply to me and it’s no surprise that I fell in love with JXXIII’s words in his.

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a stretcher bearer in the first world war and as Pope Francis puts it, alongside JPII he “really knew the pains of the 21st century, but wasn’t overcome by them”. This really hit home for me. I’d read about the lives of both Popes and how much they’d been through, to hear these words from Pope Francis gave me a new fire and a new courage to fight through adversity for my faith. 

 

I find affirmation in Johns own encyclical, he says of missionaries and priests “They have overcome many obstacles and inconveniences and given themselves to God so that other men might gain Christ.” John, as ever, is thorough in instructing the faithful in his fatherly way. When faced with obstacles, in faith, or in life, John urges us to turn to Our Loving Mother and reflect on the words of the Apostle: “In all things we suffer tribulation, but we are not distressed; we are sore pressed, but we are not destitute; we endure persecution, but we are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we do not perish; always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame.”
JXXIII really was in touch with the world, through his journaling it’s clear to see that he really did know the pains of society. He never put himself above them, nor separated himself from them and yet, as Francis, says he did not drown in them. “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” It’s clear in his encyclicals that this was a message close to his heart. He saw the changing of the world around him and he cracked open the windows of the church to let some air in.
I can see why Pope Francis liked him so much, and why he was called the Good Pope. In his writings he talks with a gentleness which is paternal, a fatherly advice, and since I’ve become an over emotional soppy blogger, I’d like to say it makes me feel a little bit warm and fuzzy. He was exceptionally humble and his simple motto, obedience and peace, reflected his humility and is in turn reflected throughout papacy.
JXXIII spoke fondly of the Cure of Ars, celebrating St John’s humbleness and self-denial, which he urged all holy men to consider. His passion in being “aflame with charity” was clear and he believed in being generous to others in your self-denial. “Not even his (the priests) thoughts, his will, his feelings blond to him, for they are rather those of Jesus Christ who is his life.” It astonishes me that a man can make self-denial complete, down to the realisation that even your thoughts and prayers belong to Christ. You owe your entire being to him. It is through the example of his beloved cure that he is able to do this, the example which, JXXIII says, “attracts and practically pushes all of us to these heights of the priestly life”, and indeed for us lay faithful and religious John Vianney is still an incredible example of holiness and dedication of faith and we ought to exert every possible effort in this direction.
It’s often in my mind as to how St. John Vianney managed all of this, such “pastoral zeal” and dedication to the Eucharist whilst enduring lack of food and sleep . JXXIII says “his only motives were the love of God and the desire for the salvation of the souls of his neighbours.” and in another place, John XXIII says that “in all that she does the Catholic Church is motivated by heaven’s inspiration… all of her children contribute with a selfless and dynamic will to mutual respect, the fraternal union of mankind, and solid peace.”
John XXIII talks so fondly of souls. In his encyclical on the Rosary, he talks about the need to pray the rosary for the church, her missions and social problems. Again, he gives us gentle, fatherly encouragement. He affirms us that he grows all the fonder of Mary’s rosary and we “should never fail to turn in spirit with ever greater confidence to the Virgin Mother of God, the constant refuge of Christians in adversity, since she has been made a source of salvation for the human race.” And we must always remember to pray for rulers of countries and other people. Again, he talks passionately of the urgency of the need for peace. Mostly he urges leaders to remember that “individual souls of men were created by God and destined to possess and enjoy Him.” and to never forget that He is “our refuge and our Redemption”
In general John XXIII was a kind and witty man, he talked so fondly of his humble upbringing and the town that he was from. His wonderful words confer the image of a kindly, fatherly man who speaks with compassion and understanding. He spoke of priests and even his predecessors with abundant gratitude. The man was a saint… oh wait…

What Would Mary Do?

A lot of people ask me why I chose the confirmation name Blaise. He’s an obscure saint, several people haven’t heard of him. He is the patron saint of sore throats. Traditionally on his feast day there are candles and blessing of throats. Why not, aye?! 

St Blaise was special in meaning to me for one reason, and one reason only. He was a bishop and eventually he was brutally martyred for not renouncing his faith, but he’s not remembered for any of that. He’s not remembered as a martyr. He’s remembered for being a physician. It was said he carried out his duties with “miraculous ability, good-will, and piety”. This is a saint for me. 

So everyone grows up with role models, Amy Childs, for example. Someone who inspires you to do amazing things and gives you a goal to reach. I’m lucky enough to grow up with some amazing role models I’ve also met some people who aspire to strange ideals…

This lent I’ve spent a lot of time reading, my search has taking me into some intriguing directions, from “Mary-Like Modesty” to “P31 Girls” the internet at large had some alarming standards for Catholic Women to have a shot at. While being part of what’s being called ‘The Mary-Like Crusade’ sounds like something I would love to be a part of, it’s all a bit strange. 

“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.”

–The Cardinal Vicar of Pope Pius XI

To be Mary-like, apparently, you must wear a loose-fitting dress that covers you head to toe and wrists. That’s a lot of material. Seriously, although I appreciate modesty, when the surface area of your dress is greater than the surface area of you, you’re in for disaster. I tried wearing a maxi skirt once and it requires a level of grace and elegance that I haven’t quite mastered yet. This is not withstanding actually doing anything practical with your day, clearly this man has never tried to play ice breakers or even sit on the floor. 

I got further down the rabbit hole; clicking from link to link trying to make sense of this whole thing. It was then that I came across the phrase ‘Modest is hottest.’ Cheesy slogans aren’t really my thing. This one really angered me, like from deep within. 

Granted, it a catchy way of promoting the values that Timothy and Peter spoke about. But does the phrase itself really lend to the values? Or does it actually take away from exactly what it is they’re trying to promote?

The more I read about this slogan and the people who follow it, the more I believe it doesn’t lend itself to real modesty at all. Women who hear this mantra are said to experience “horrible Sunday school flash backs.” In which shame is used as the main motivator to ensure that each girls skirt falls below her knee. Blogs entitled “Modest is hottest” go on to tell me that if my skirt is cut above the knee and my top is tight then the souls of my male friends are at risk. Gutted boys. 

The damage of this mantra goes a little deeper. Girl’s from catholic convent schools will remember having their skirts measured and if they were deemed ‘immodest’ you were made to wear the dreaded ‘ugly skirt’ from lost property. The modern-day version of a scarlet letter. I know that no amount of kneeling in corridors or ugly skirts will stop skirts being rolled up on the train to school, or low-cut tops in the pubs on the weekend (I also know, from first hand experience, that is actually impossible to get served at a busy bar the a top cut two fingers breadth from the pit of one’s neck.) So if Women aren’t being affected by modesty standards in this way how are they being affected?!
Girls are being taught that no matter what you must cover all of yourself up, lest you be objectified by men. Obviously, men are powerless to how they feel when they see bare legs and it is of course your fault for getting them out. There’s an undertone there that says something terrible about the minds of men, and more so something terrible about why we’re teaching our Girl’s to be modest. Girls should glorify God in all they do (dressing included) we don’t dress to ‘Serve our Christian brothers’. This lesson of modesty for girls, however subtle, is a lesson of inequality. Of course it’s inappropriate for men to realise that I have a figure, but it’s perfectly okay for men to wear skinny jeans that leave nothing to the imagination, unbutton their shirts to way below two fingers breadth below their clavicle. I have a soul too!
Mary has been a role model for me for some time now. Her courage before the Angel Gabriel, to not only say ‘yes’ to God in the face of something terrifying, but also to glorify the Lord. That moment in scripture has always reminded me to have courage, not simply to do terrifying things, but to know that we can do all things in Christ.
My problem with Mary-like modesty is that to be ‘Mary-like’ to me doesn’t and shouldn’t start and end with what you wear. Ultimately I believe that “The good of our soul is more important than that of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts.” (Pius XII to Catholic Young Women’s Groups of Italy) This is true, but not just true of women. Our souls, and the souls of our brother’s and sister’s are what is most important. If you are dressing, man or woman, to get people to lust after you then you are not doing everything to glorify the Lord. If you think that modesty makes you ‘hottest’ then you are not doing everything to glorify the Lord. If you wear a dress that hits the floor and cover your head, but aren’t modest in other ways, then you are not glorifying the Lord.
Mary was humble, she knew that all that was given her was a gift from God and she never boasted about it. Mary was always in the background until she appeared on Calvary where she was recognised as the mother of a condemned man. Albert le Grand said “In Jesus’ Passion, the disciples were plunged into doubt, only the Holy Virgin remained steady in her faith”. She lived her life in poverty, obedience and patience, she called herself God’s servant, humbly embracing God’s word.
Obviously, we’re probably not going to become the mother of God. Just like I’m probably not going to be martyred and become the patron saint of sore throats. It’s close to impossible to use Proverbs 31 as a checklist. To become our heroes and role models isn’t glorifying the Lord.
There’s a brilliant line in one of my favourite films, Nowhere Boy, where John Lennon asks his Mum why God didn’t make him Elvis Presley. His mother, infinite in wisdom, as all mothers are, replies ‘Because He was saving you for John Lennon.
Dressing like Elvis Presley wont make you Elvis Presley, it wont make you good at playing the guitar and singing, and it wont make his fans adore you the way they adore him.
Dressing like Mary is not being like Mary. If we strive to obtain the qualities that Mary had we’ll probably fall short (We can’t exactly strive to be born without sin) but if we strive to apply them to our lives then we can have the Values that Timothy and Peter were talking about too. Modesty. Not shame, or guilt.
If we have these qualities then naturally, logically, modesty follows. It can’t be forced upon girls kneeling in corridors, it can’t be reinforced with harsh words or rash judgements.
Mary doesn’t teach us to ensure the lengths of a skirts, or the cut of our tops. She teaches us that we are beautiful, from the inside out, and that’s what counts.