Monday, December 23, 2013

The nativity crashes through the barriers of injustice

We associate the nativity scene, or crèche, with Christmas; many churches and homes display a crèche during the Christmas season, and the traditional Christmas pageant concludes with a tableau of the nativity.  The message of the crèche, however, is not only for the holiday season; its message is for the entire year. The crèche speaks of justice, and invites people everywhere to break down the barriers that contribute to injustice.

A simple creche 

Today's creche is more elaborate than the original version
Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in 1223 when, in a niche on a rocky hillside, he set up a manger to which he brought an ox and an ass. People flocked to the makeshift stable. That first crèche helped people encounter the tender love of God made manifest in a baby.

From its original simplicity, the crèche evolved to include what is frequently an epic cast of characters more suitable for a Renaissance canvas than for most mantelpieces or church sanctuaries.  It is not unusual for a crèche to have figurines of Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger, shepherds and their sheep, magi and their camels and gifts, an ox, an ass and an imaginative assortment of other animals.

A blend of the Gospel nativity narratives
The more elaborate representations of the crèche blend the two versions of the birth of Jesus that are recounted in the New Testament. In Luke’s Gospel, shepherds hurry from the hills to find the baby in a manger. In Matthew’s Gospel, magi from the East find the child sometime later. Neither Gospel places the shepherds and magi together at the stable, nor mentions any animals, not even the legendary ass that carried the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem.

Some of the figurines from a ceramic set that my mother made for me;
this set also includes more shepherds, sheep, and three large camels
A vision of justice
The crèche is a rich source of material for reflection, and my appreciation for it deepens with every passing year.  When I was a child, the crèche was a welcome distraction during a long Christmas Mass that, in my childhood estimation, interfered with the festivities under the tree. In the crèche today, I see a theology of justice.

The figures of the crèche –Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi – do not have much in common. They are from different cultural, socio-economic and religious backgrounds.  While under ordinary circumstances they may have been wary of one another, the baby in the manger unites them. Before the manger, the categories that frequently separate and divide people – race, culture, creed and wealth – dissipate.  The crèche directs attention to the dignity of every individual, and presents a vision of human interactions that are devoid of bias, prejudice, greed and hatred.

The crèche holds a message that transcends its usefulness as a seasonal decoration to adorn mantles and church sanctuaries. The message of the crèche can touch our hearts, and inspire us towards more loving and just relationships.  The crèche invites everyone to participate in creating a world where the goodwill, peace and joy of Christmas take root and flourish all year long.

Although the crèche artistically portrays a first century story of the birth of a savior, and is specific to a particular set of religious beliefs, the message of the crèche is for everyone, and for all times.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The pre-Christmas rush can turn an elf into a Scrooge

My kitchen looks like a bomb went off!

By now, I should be a pro at Christmas dinner. I should be able to get a hot turkey dinner onto the plate before the gravy congeals, but every year, it’s a challenge. No matter how organized I am ahead of time, as soon as that bird comes out of the oven, there is a crazed flurry of activity in the kitchen.  Within minutes, my kitchen looks like a bomb went off. And then, once we sit down at the beautifully laid table, almost everyone eats far too quickly (perhaps they were expecting hot turkey), and the feast that took days to prepare is over in 15 minutes.

The culinary challenge of Christmas dinner is only one aspect of the season that can make a cheerful holiday spirit as heavy as plum pudding. The weeks of shopping, baking, decorating and socializing that lead up to Christmas Day can morph the jolliest elf into Scrooge. It can be difficult to stay level when we expect that our preparations will produce a holly, jolly Christmas. While I haven’t quite perfected the art of a stress free holiday season, a few years ago I had a revelation that helps me keep my preparations in perspective. 

"To-do" lists not sugar plums danced in my head
In the wee hours of the morning, on a night before Christmas, to-do-lists, instead of sugarplums, were dancing in my head.  As I tossed and turned, wondering how I would accomplish all the tasks with which I had burdened myself, it came to me: Christmas Day would come and go no matter what I did, or didn’t, do. 

This realization changed my approach to Christmas preparations. Since that sleepless night, I buy less, decorate more simply, bake fewer cookies, and I no longer worry about polishing the brass doorknobs. These changes have freed up time for reflection and spiritual preparation, both of which help me to be more present to my family and others.

I never forgot the ‘reason for the season’, nor did I forget to ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ when I was caught up in the hustle and bustle of busy sidewalks.  I just got a little sidetracked in my efforts to make Christmas extra special.  Although I didn’t realize it then, I realize now that my Christmas preparations expressed a longing for those intangible things that contribute to my idea of a perfect Christmas. Those things - a renewed spiritual life, a happy hearth, everyone healthy for the holidays, and a sense of inner peace and joy - are not found in the material aspects of Christmas. While I still feel edgy sometimes during the holiday season, I am much more focused on the essentials of Christmas.

A celebration of God's generous love
Christmas is a celebration of generosity and relationships, flowing from God’s gracious love for us made manifest in the birth of Jesus. Just as Jesus reveals God’s generous love for the world, we try to express our generosity towards others through our Christmas preparations. And while special foods, gifts and decorations add to the celebration, it’s important to keep those preparations in perspective.  If we are one plum pudding away from a Yuletide meltdown, we have probably gone overboard.

I have definitely toned down my preparations since that night when to-do lists disturbed my sleep. Now, if I could only figure out a way to get a piping hot turkey dinner on the table, I would be the jolliest of elves.

"Christmas Shopping"
Image courtesy of Kittisak /

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pope Francis, Time Magazine's Person of 2013

After a mere nine months on the job, Time magazine has named Pope Francis its Person of the Year for 2013.  The editors at Time award the annual distinction to the individual whom they consider the most influential global newsmaker of the year.  What is it about Francis that makes him such a sensation?

Francis became pope at a time when all the news streaming out from the Vatican was negative. The clerical sexual abuse scandal, Vatileaks, the Vatican’s paternalistic attitude towards women religious in the United States, the refusal to discuss the ordination of women, and the endless focus on sexual morality had disheartened many faithful Catholics. While many were wondering how much longer they could remain part of the church, others had already left.

Into this milieu, a relatively unknown cardinal, José Bergoglio, burst onto the world stage and captured the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with lightning speed.  Choosing the name Francis, after the saint known for the renunciation of his wealth, his embrace of poverty and his radical commitment to the gospel, Pope Francis signaled that change was afoot. 

Initiating change
At the institutional level, Pope Francis is initiating change.  He has set up committees to address the church’s dismal record on child sex abuse and to restructure the Vatican Bank. On a pastoral level, he has called a synod to discuss the issues facing families. While there is nothing unusual about a pope calling a synod, Francis is asking ordinary Catholics for input in advance of the synod through the circulation of a questionnaire that is available online in most dioceses.

Spontaneity and humility
Since his election as pope, Francis has surprised the world with his spontaneity and humility. He is a man who eschews both the trappings and protocols of the highest clerical office in the church. He drives around the Vatican in a 1984 Renault, a gift from a priest who served the poor, instead of the papal Mercedes.  He acknowledges the institutional sinfulness of the church, as well as his personal failure to perfectly follow Christ and receives the sacrament of reconciliation bi-weekly.  He reaches out to the disadvantaged and wounded, not only caressing a man disfigured with neurofibromatosis, but also by walking among the poor at night in order to feed them.  He meets the temporal and spiritual needs of those with whom he comes into contact.

Authentic, not about photo-ops
This man, who is the subject of so many photos, is not about the photo-op. This man, whom some call “Francis, the Frugal”, and who promotes a “culture of encounter” between the church and the world, is about following Christ. Francis brings the Gospel message of hope into lives that are broken, and into a world where the news is generally negative.

An extraordinary ability to make God present
In my view, Pope Francis has an extraordinary ability to make God present to people. He reminds the world that the message of Christmas is a message for everyday: God is with us. He shows the church and the world that God is not an abstract theological concept wrapped up in dogma and doctrine, nor a far off deity unconcerned with the affairs of humans.  Francis carries the healing mission of the church into the world.

This global newsmaker is about much more than headlines, good public relations and snappy photos. He is about the compassionate mercy of God, and that attracts attention.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The tangled webs of deceit

Image courtesy of "Boaz Yiftach/
Image courtesy of Boaz Yiftach/
There must be a whole lot of smoking pants in the corridors of power. It seems that every week, new information about the Senate scandal or Rob Ford comes to light. Still, the truth is elusive and the people involved are evasive.  In my recent column, I reflect on "the truth will set you free".  

No one is perfect

I agree with Rob Ford, the beleaguered mayor of Toronto, on two points: no one is perfect and we all make mistakes.  We have all done things that we regret and (hopefully, for our own good) we had to take responsibility for our actions. Over the course of my life, I have learned that it is always better to be forthcoming with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth than to persist in a web of lies, and that I am at peace with myself when I accept responsibility for my actions. The truth is freeing. 

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an episode of Oprah’s Life Class on the theme, “The truth will set you free”.  If the hundreds of people who participated in the episode are even remotely representative of the general population, many people seek freedom from deception. While we want to stop deceiving others about ourselves, fear of rejection holds us back.

In my worldview, the truth that frees goes beyond owning up to a falsehood, and leads us to discovering our deepest identity.  I believe that there is a divine spark in every person that orients us towards truth. While, for me, this spark is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of a loving, caring God, the notion of divinity within each person is common to many traditions throughout the ages. A rendering of Platonic thought describes us as “fired into existence with a madness that comes from the gods”, and legends from cultures around the world speak about the transcendent origins of the human person. There is something within each of us (I call it a soul) that is uniquely special and worthy; despite any deep-seated feelings of unworthiness that we may have, there is no need for lying.

We dislike deception
In fact, our brains and our bodies dislike the very act of lying.  We are wired towards truth. Measurable changes occur in blood pressure, pulse rate and breathing when we tell a lie. When we are lying, we sweat more, experience tightness in the torso, a loss of physical strength, and we may feel sick to our stomach. Experts in body language and law enforcement officials can usually tell when a person is lying because lying expresses itself in things like posture, language, and how someone uses their hands when speaking. 

No, we do not like any type of deception; maybe that is why when we finally come clean, we say that a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. When we admit the truth, we feel a sense of relief, even if the consequences are unpleasant.

Simplicity is integral to truth
Lying is complicated. One lie leads to another, and maintaining the original lie takes a concentrated effort. Sir Walter Scott expressed it poetically, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive”.   In contrast, simplicity is integral to the truth.

(Pinocchio, public domain)
Between the Senate scandal and the Rob Ford story, Canadian politics has given us plenty of evidence of the complications of deceitful behavior. Some public figures have failed to be forthcoming with the whole truth, and by degrees, more damaging information has come to light. Some have steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for their mistakes, preferring to make excuses and blame others even as the web unraveled.

"Don't you have any occhio?"
When I was growing up, my father had a favorite question, “Don’t you have any occhio?”  Occhio is an Italian word meaning “eye”, and my dad used it to mean “foresight” – to think things through before acting.  The question was a reprimand before a lecture and ensuing consequences, but it encouraged me to consider my actions in a moral context and to behave accordingly.  If I felt the need to lie about something, then the action was probably wrong, and I should avoid it.  It wasn’t so much the consequences that kept me on the straight and narrow; it was the intuition that I was in touch with my deepest identity when I behaved in a morally good way.

Yes, we are imperfect, and yes, we all make mistakes. And though it is tempting to hide our flaws and errors in tangled webs of deceit, the truth overcomes a multitude of sins providing we have the courage to own it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Church teas and bazaars

Who doesn't have fond memories of the annual church tea and bazaar? I enjoyed them as a child, and I continue to enjoy them. They are wonderful community gatherings, but, as a fundraiser, they make little sense. My recent column looks at their mysterious fundraising logic that  tugs on our hearts and keeps the annual tradition thriving.

The mysterious fund raising logic of church teas

Image courtesy of Apolonia/
The annual fall church tea and bazaar has withstood the test of time. While it is assumed to be a good fundraiser, the real benefits of the event lay in its ability to strengthen the community. In fact, if we consider the cost of the event versus the funds raised, a church tea and bazaar, at least where I live, is an inefficient way of raising funds.  A few examples will illustrate my point.

At a church tea I recently attended, for the price of my $2 tea ticket, I received the equivalent of a sandwich and a selection of sweets, plus my beverage.  Certainly, the ingredients alone cost more than the ticket price.

This is also true for the bazaar where the value of the goods donated exceeds the sale price, and I am not even considering the value of people’s time and skill level. At the sewing and knitting tables, one can buy expertly made items for less than the cost of the materials. The same thing happens at the bake table.

Image courtesy of Marcus/
To give an example, I purchased cupcakes for 25 cents each.  Made from scratch (using butter not margarine), a frosted chocolate cupcake, in a paper baking cup, costs 69 cents.  Made from a cake mix, it’s 44 cents.

The mystery table is the most illogical of all
The mystery table, while extraordinarily fun, may quite possibly be the most illogical fundraiser ever conceived.  At this table, people purchase gifts that others have donated, wrapped, and labeled with the age range and sex for which the gift is most appropriate. Even if someone “re-gifts” an item, its value is greater than the standard mystery table price of a loonie or toonie.  A person can easily donate $20 or more in mystery gifts, only to sell them for a whopping $4 or $5. 

As a matter of economics, the logical conclusion is that the church tea and bazaar is inefficient as a fundraiser. So, why bother? Wouldn’t it be better if we all just made a cash donation?

Making money isn't everything
My unequivocal answer is, “No.” Not everything needs to make economic sense, nor are the most important things measured in dollar amounts.   There is more at stake here than making money.

While it is true that the event attracts more involvement from women than men, it brings together members of the church whose paths may typically cross only on a Sunday. It gives people the chance to work together towards a common goal despite their varied interests and abilities.

In a small town, at least, the church tea and bazaar is an ecumenical gathering as well as a popular gathering place for the secular community. At the church tea and bazaar, people renew acquaintances, catch up on family news, and make arrangements to get together.  There is a hustle and bustle about church teas that has more to do with relationships than with money.

Memories of the fishpond
I have wonderful memories of church teas that go back to childhood. The highlight of the bazaar was the “fishpond”. A nickel bought us a “fishing rod” that we dropped behind a bed sheet. We would pull up our fishing rod to find a paper fish attached which we exchanged for a prize.  I can still picture Mrs. Mallot, the woman who ran the fishpond for my entire childhood and beyond, sitting on a stool, surreptitiously attaching a fish to the paper clip.

As a young mother, the Saturday afternoon outing was a highlight. It gave me a chance to socialize with my peers, and the children looked forward to the little sandwiches without crusts, being with their grandmothers, and seeing their friends. Now, I enjoy helping out (you’ll find me at the mystery table) or simply attending the tea. The church tea and bazaar continues to enrich my experience of being a member of a community.

It fullfills the need to belong
The church tea and bazaar has withstood the test of time because it helps fulfill the basic human need of belonging. It is an inclusive event in which everyone, regardless of age, socio-economic status or belief, can participate.  The profits, though helpful for the church, are secondary to the task of bringing people together. We would be less of a community without it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Quebec's proposed Charter of Values goes too far

Employers should be able to set dress codes for their workplace, but in the case of the proposed Charter of Values, the Parti Quebecois government is going too far.

One of the Charter’s proposals includes a highly controversial ban on the wearing of  “conspicuous” religious symbols - kippas, turbans, hijabs, burkas and large crosses – in the public sector workplace. The ban would affect all public sector employees including daycare staff, school and hospital employees, police, judges and civil servants. 

Quebec's Charter of Values poster - unacceptable religious symbols

It calls into questions the religious neutrality of the state
According to the Quebec government, banning religious symbols from the workplace would ensure the religious neutrality of the state.   If the Charter becomes law, compliance with the ban will likely be more burdensome for non-Christians than Christians, and, in my opinion, this calls into question the very religious neutrality of the state.

It is necessary and reasonable for a secular state to require its employees to exercise their duties in the spirit of religious neutrality. This applies to both the religious and the non-religious. In the absence of evidence that Quebec has a substantial problem with its public sector employees who wear religious symbols, the Charter of Values seems unnecessary and repressive.

Human resource policies for troublesome employees should be enough
It is also insulting.  It paints all religious people with the same brush, suggesting that those who wear religious symbols to work are incapable of doing their jobs competently and without prejudice because of their desire to express their beliefs. While there are fanatics in every religion who may cause problems, a legislated charter of values to deal with them is excessive. Human resource policies that are well developed and properly administered should be sufficient to deal with individual employees who do not act in a professional manner because of their religious beliefs.

It distorts the concept of the separation of church and state
Some argue that the ban on wearing religious symbols in the public sector workplace is a natural extension of the separation of church and state. I disagree. The imposition of a charter of values that discriminates against some because they wear religious symbols (and let’s be honest, non-Christians will be most affected) distorts the concept of separation between church and state.

The separation of church and state protects the freedom of religion and its expression; it does not try to limit them by policing clothing.  Neither favoring nor discriminating against any religion, the state maintains its neutrality. Public policies on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which most religions oppose, effectively illustrate the success of the separation between church and state.

Over time, the Charter of Values could have the unintended consequence of pushing religious groups to the fringes of society under the guise of preserving the separation of church and state.  Eventually, similar pressures may begin to play out in the private sector.

Requiring people to remove the symbols of their religion as a condition of public sector employment has the effect of removing their community of faith from the public eye, and making it invisible.  A ban on religious symbols denies the individual and their community their identity and existence. This has never been the intention of the separation of church and state.

Public sector employees do not need to hide their religion in order to preserve the religious neutrality of the state.   A Charter of Values that forbids employees from displaying religious symbols on their person in the public sector workplace unwittingly promotes a vision of society without religion. It suggests that religion should be unseen, and while some would agree, this is untenable in a society that constitutionally guarantees freedom of religion and expression.

The Charter of Values seeks to regulate the expression of religion in the public sector. In doing so, and to the detriment of individuals’ beliefs, the Charter approaches a repudiation of the very religious neutrality that the Quebec government seeks to enshrine as a core value.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A time for gratitude

This year, our family celebrates Thanksgiving with a deep sense of gratitude. Our daughter gave birth to her first child, and our first grandchild. Christina Marie has entered our lives, and we are full of joy.

My recent column for Troy Media, "Being thankful make us better people", expresses some of my thoughts on the importance of gratitude.  

Falling leaves
Louise McEwan photo

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Saying good bye to a beloved church

My parish church, Saint Anthony of Padua in the historic Gulch neighbourhood of Trail, BC, was recently closed, and many of us, despite the long preparatory process, are feeling the loss of what was for us a very special place. 

It is never easy to say good-bye to a church even when we fully grasp the reasons for the closure; even when we understand that bricks and mortar do not make the church, it can be difficult to separate the physical place from the spiritual journey.  

My recent column, available from the Prairie Messenger, expresses my thoughts on the closure of this one church; thoughts which I hope reflect the heart of anyone who has had to lock the doors of their worship space.

PS - Special thanks to Mike Hockley Photo for the beautiful images of Saint Anthony's.

Mike Hockley Photo: Saint Anthony of Padua, Trail BC

Mike Hockley Photo: Saint Anthony Of Padua, Trail BC

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pope Francis is good news

Pope Francis's interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, published in America Magazine, makes for inspiring reading. I have read it repeatedly, pen in hand, and each time I have found something new to think about.  

This pope, in my view, is good news for Roman Catholicism.  

What follows is a version of my most recent newspaper column.

Changing the tone 
From the moment he stepped onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s square, humbly bowing his head to ask for the blessing of the people, Francis began to change the tone of the hierarchical church at the same time showing the world what it means to be a Christian.

Within days of becoming pope, Francis’s small acts – paying his hotel bill, riding in the bus instead of the papal limousine, and moving into Room 201 at Santa Marta instead of into the papal apartments - communicated humility and largesse of spirit.

Over the last six months, we have seen examples of his pastoral style, his informal and gracious manner of bringing the face of God to people. Actions, such as casually chatting with reporters on a plane, responding candidly to impromptu questions, and making “cold calls” to people who have written him for consolation, speak volumes about this man’s expectations for the church’s engagement with the world.

A field hospital, not a laboratory
Speaking with Spadaro about the type of church he would like to see, Francis compared the church to a “field hospital after battle”, saying that today the church must heal wounds and warm hearts.  This image of the field hospital contrasts with another image Francis draws upon later in the conversation; that of the church as a laboratory. “Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”

The contrast between these two images, especially when considered in light of Francis’s style, points to a change in emphasis away from moral pronouncements towards the proclamation of “the saving love of God” because “God is greater than sin”.  

It appears that Francis wants to take the church out of the laboratory and into the streets, where faith, culture and morality meet and frequently collide, and where abstract truths must be balanced against the actual circumstances of people’s lives.  He speaks about the necessity of proclaiming God’s merciful love ahead of moral and religious imperatives, frankly admitting, “Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”

Shifting the focus, not the teaching
I think that by degrees, Francis is directing the church’s discussion with the world away from the obsessive discussion on gay marriage, abortion and reproductive rights towards the gospel message of mercy, compassion and love. He is also nudging the discussion on the ordination of women towards the less specific topic of the role of women in the church and its administration. 

These shifts in focus do not invalidate the church’s teaching, nor do they mean that Francis intends to change the substance of it. As he told Spadaro, “The teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

I read this interview with great interest, and received Francis’s comments about the church with enthusiasm but mostly I was captivated with the tone of humility that animated the entire interview.  

The pope's "dogmatic certainty"
Francis’s spirit is clearly evident in what he defines as his “dogmatic certainty”: that is, “God is in every person’s life…Even if that person has been a disaster…Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.”

Francis’s dogmatic certainty is good news and it gets right to the heart of the Christian faith.  The church is not a laboratory for the formulation of doctrine; it is the field hospital where an encounter with God is always possible.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Lessons from Cato, my cat

Opening a can of tuna will never be the same for me again.

The distinctive sound of the can opener puncturing the tin always brought our cat, Cato, running to my feet. She would sit, looking up at me with anticipation, before getting dangerously underfoot as I moved to pour the water from the can into her bowl.  

Tuna water was her favorite treat, and on one occasion I was able to coax her down from the top of a high tree simply by saying “tuna” and opening a tin.  Cato lived with us for 18 years, and during that time she became a member of the family.

The amount of money that North Americans spend on pets suggests that we have gone gaga over them. In 2011, Canadians spent $8.9 billion on their pets, and Americans spent a whopping $50 billion.  While it was not my practice to spend exorbitant amounts on Cato, I coughed up several hundred dollars without hesitation when she required emergency surgery after raccoons attacked her.

Pets win our affection
We lavish attention on our pets because they win us over. My relationship with Cato was a good example of the affects that a pet can have on an individual’s heart.

When Cato first came to us, the kids were more excited than I was about having a cat. As one of my children described it, Cato and I had a business relationship. She kept the mice out of the house, and I made sure she was fed.  

Cato, in the early days
Louise McEwan photo

While it is unclear if I trained her or she trained me, we came to understand one another almost perfectly. While I am not exactly a lover of animals in the mode of Saint Francis, who famously preached to the birds, I found myself talking to Cato on more than one occasion. 

Cato, the preacher
It was Cato, however, who did the real preaching. Even though she possessed an instinctual ruthlessness as a hunter by nature, her feline traits spoke to me of contentment, and her presence was soothing.   From her vibrating purr to her ability to lounge on any surface, no matter how hard and uncomfortable, she conveyed a spirit of softness.

In the hubris of my humanity, I never expected to learn anything from a cat. This was an ignorant, perhaps even a sinful, attitude, for as Saint Francis knew animals have the potential to deepen our awareness of the presence of the divine in creation and in the human heart. They have the ability to call forth deep levels of kindness and compassion; as the saint taught, “men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity will deal likewise with their fellow men”.

There is a deep connection between people and their pets

Dizzy reads along, ready to turn the page
T. McEwan photo
Saint Francis perceived an affinity between people and animals: people and animals originated in the same Creator, whose providential care sustained them both.  While not everyone shares Saint Francis’s worldview, most will agree that there is a deep connection between people and their pets.  

I was sad and upset as my cat’s life ebbed away and the inevitable visit to the vet loomed. I was unprepared for the lingering sense of loss I felt after she died; I did not expect to be looking for her in the old familiar places in the weeks that followed. Cato had brought a mellowness into our lives and the house felt quiet and empty without her.

The deep connection we have with our pets makes that final farewell difficult. The exceptional kindness of my vet and his assistant on that last visit made the parting easier.  Each of us understood the bond between person and pet.  It was there in Cato’s dying. 

I knew she was gone before my vet whispered the words. The light had faded from her eyes.  She had returned to her maker who was reflected in the intangible softness she had brought to our home.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Doing nothing is beautiful

"...we do not always have to be productive, nor do we need to wait for a vacation to create some space for leisure."

Running on the treadmill is rarely my first choice, but when faced with either scorching heat or torrential rain, the treadmill in the basement beckons. In the last month, I’ve found myself running indoors on several occasions because of both conditions. I try to make the most of running on the treadmill, using it as an opportunity whenever possible to multi-task.  A recent treadmill work out reminded me that the drive to be constantly productive isn’t always the best strategy for nurturing one’s inner self.

This particular day, I was tuned into David Rocco’s Dolce Vita.  Within minutes, I was laughing aloud. The episode revolved around a professor who is throwing a party. The professor’s appearance immediately cracks me up.  He looks ridiculous in his Speedo underneath a bathrobe. Equally amusing to me is that he is relaxing beside a pool that is almost empty, and which he has been filling for three weeks. 

In praise of laziness
The professor is enjoying being idle, and he enlists the help of an old Italian saying, “Never do today what someone else can do tomorrow”, to justify his lack of productivity. On the surface, he seems to be praising laziness. And while this is the sort of attitude that typically gets under my skin, today it makes me laugh. It reminds me of our visit to Italy.

Treviso, Italy - The old and the new
M. McEwan photo

Last summer, we spent a few days with my relatives who live near Venice. While we were productive in that touristy sense of visiting historical sites, it was the moments of doing nothing that made the visit memorable. In typical Italian fashion, my relatives out did one another in their generous hospitality towards us, which meant long leisurely meals celebrating family and savoring the fruits of the garden as we sipped Prosecco, the wine of the region.

Recalling that experience, the professor’s brand of carpe diem philosophy took on new meaning. The professor wasn’t advocating idleness. He was promoting a form of leisure encapsulated in another Italian saying, il bel far niente, or “the beauty of doing nothing”.

Treviso, Italy
M. McEwan photo
This episode of Dolce Vita and the memories it evoked of my visit to Italy reminded me that we do not always have to be productive, nor do we need to wait for a vacation to create some space for leisure. We can punctuate life with moments of doing nothing. The simplest things, like water trickling into a pool or an impromptu party such as we enjoyed on my aunt’s portico the night before we left, can create the sensation of rest or celebration in an otherwise ordinary day.

Il bel far niente - a spiritual intuition
At the heart of il bel far niente lays a spiritual intuition; doing nothing enriches our spirit, nurtures our relationships and heightens our awareness of life’s many blessings. There is nothing flaky about doing nothing.

I hopped off the treadmill energized and full of enthusiasm. I had a plan to punctuate the day with an exclamation mark, with my take on il bel far niente.  I’d make pasta al limone and invite the kids over for an impromptu dinner party.  I could taste the sweetness of doing nothing.