Friday, August 30, 2013

My daughter's kindergarten class was very small this year, and one of the families was active in charity work for premature babies because they'd suffered a personal loss. Out of the happenstance of our acquaintance, then, we supported their cause. That's usually how it is, one has either a direct or indirect experience which spurs participation. Rarely out of the blue does anyone support something simply because "it makes sense." There are too many good causes to choose from and too few personal resources to allocate.

The event, then, that we attended was a "day at the races" in Oceanport. Being a Marx Brothers fan, it was impossible to ignore the name collision with one of their movies. In New Jersey, horses, especially horse racing, are big business. But as I've lived here, I've consciously kept myself from the latter, that sport of kings. Still, everyone knows where the horse track is; getting there is merely a matter of following the crowd.

It had been twenty years since my employer, that telephone giant, AT&T, sponsored a company picnic at Monmouth Park in Oceanport. At that time, I worked literally across the street at a site which is now an extension of Monmouth University. During lunch, some of my coworkers used to go over to the track and bet their paychecks, but that company picnic was my one and only visit. Until, that is, this charity event.

With such limited experience, we wandered about a bit, looking for the right gathering. Once we were seated in the picnic area, I recollected the view of the grandstand from that earlier occasion twenty years ago. Of course, we had a booklet with the day's races printed. I was stunned to overhear adults asking their children's advice on where to place their money. "Pick me a winner, Sonny!" Someone agreed that, at $3 admission and children in free, the track was cheap, Sunday afternoon entertainment. As if they literally had nothing better to do.

We'd missed the first race because, after all, it was Sunday and my daughter performed at church for the VBS show. But we weren't the last to arrive. I was soon joined at the table by two women and a senior, married couple, all of whom were serious betters. Or they thought they were. The old guy was trying to "beat the system:"
Instead of splitting $6 between 'win' and 'show,' let's use the same $6 and make two-dollar bets on 'win,' 'place' and 'show.'
Yeah. I don't know anything about racing, but I'm guessing "beating the system" isn't as easy as all that. At one point, I moved to get out of the sun and inadvertently positioned myself between his wife and the odds board. She kept craning to see the updated numbers before deciding her bets. The other two women had their noses buried in their booklets. Needless to say, there wasn't much pleasant conversation. Once it was noticed that I wasn't "playing along," placing bets or taking any more interest in the horses than watching them run, one of the women asked me with a condescending tone, "So, Teresa, first time at the track?" I said, "No. Second time."

I'm not sure why anyone would want to cultivate a habit of betting. Why is that anything that anyone would want to "get good at?" I have plenty of bad habits already.

But I will say, again, watching the horses run was thrilling even without money on them. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more, not caring which horse won. There was an interesting episode in the 5th race, the number 9 horse appeared very spirited. It attempted to buck its jockey off twice. Both times, the tiny guy leapt into the air as the horse reared up. It was amazing to see him avoid injury. And he got right back on. There was some hope his horse would win.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sunday Snippets - a Catholic carnival hosted by RAnn at "This That and the Other Thing."

My post this week: Continuing excerpts from the pilgrimage journal - Morning in Santiago

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We were just beginning the portion of the trip - Santiago, Avila and Madrid - that had the most significance for me.

I mailed five postcards in Braga, including one to home. Father was frustrated with us for writing out and mailing postcards. I had written mine out days earlier and was waiting only for a place with a mailbox and stamps for sale. I suggested to Father that postcards are a form of evangelism. He graciously conceded the point.

After morning mass, First Saturday, which was moderately attended by the pilgrims in my group, we had breakfast. At 8:15 in the morning, it was still dark outside. The hotel's restaurant was on the tenth floor. By 8:45am, it was daylight despite having rained all day and still really teeming during breakfast.

We took the bus from our hotel to Santiago cathedral.

The old city used to be walled in an oval but today most of the walls have become the side of a building. One city gate remains. Hospitals exist outside the city wall to care for pilgrims who may be ill as a kind of quarantine. We heard a bagpiper playing in an alcove out of the rain. I gave him some change, maybe a Euro altogether. Not much. Our guide said the bagpiper has only one pipe. She said these are Celtic influences in Gallicia, in fact, the Celts came from this part of Spain. Maybe that's why I feel such an affinity for this place.

Our guide named all the statues and figures on the facade of the church, including Mary Salome, Mary's sister, making James and John Jesus' cousins.

Also, statues personifying the four cardinal virtues, Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Fortitude.

Temperance was figured mixing hot and cold water. Justice had a sword or rod or measuring stick. Prudence had a mirror. Fortitude had a stick or rod.

We walked around the interior of the cathedral. We came in the transept and saw the botafumeiro right away.

We saw St. James' sepulcher downstairs and hugged his statue upstairs.

A common image at the top of capitals is two birds drinking from the cup of life, like Eden.

I was anxious to get a seat for the noon mass because they were going to swing the thurible. I turned in my earphones to the guide and excused myself from the tour early. I said my rosary which was my penance from confession the night before and got a good seat on the aisle.

Some young people sat next to me and the transept filled up quickly. The mass was served by several priests and a wonderful nun cantor who had a great voice.

She led us in a practice of the psalm refrain and another song, maybe the entrance hymn. I did the best I could but the sound system did not help me understand her Spanish. The celebrant was old but forceful and convicted. He spoke with intensity, but I understood absolutely nothing. He mentioned "Los Estados Unidos" several times in his opening remarks and I believe he was praying for pilgrims from that country1.

He mentioned other countries as well. It was the noon mass for pilgrims. The mass followed the normal Saturday format: I recognized the readings from our English mass that morning in the hotel. During the sermon, I understood the priest to invoke the closing of the "Hail Mary" several times, like a refrain - ahora y'a l'hora du muerta [sic] - "now and at the hour of death." Our recitation of the Creed took the form of renewing our baptismal promises. After each article of faith, we said, "Si, credo." Mostly I understood what I was consenting to!

Communion went quickly but not orderly and the priest said nothing to me as he gave the host, maybe because he couldn't ascertain my language. It didn't seem like a personal interaction at all. I don't even think I said Amen, consequently. After, the men swung the botafumeiro which is an oversized thurible that swings from side to side along the transept, nearly touching the ceiling. You can see the red, burning coals inside, and the swinging seems to only fan the flames!

Our guide said that the west door was never open so most everyone entered by the transept doors - the "hands of Christ" - if one considers the church as a cross. She said that as a girl she walked through as a shortcut rather than walking around. She said that animals and people on horseback also cut through the church so in order to "clear the air" the thurible was swung. I'm not sure I buy her explanation but it was a solemn, quiet demonstration and not the circus atmosphere I observed a few months ago on YouTube when a priest at St. Mark's down the Shore described it. A very respectful demonstration - nothing liturgically offensive.

I was surprised to learn later that so few stayed for liturgy or to watch the botafumeiro. A few only popped in the church to catch a bit of the botafumeiro swinging! I don't get people at all. What else could they be doing?

1 As I write this from my travel diary almost a year after the fact, I now suspect the priest may have mentioned the United States because of Superstorm Sandy's aftermath. At the time, I had little idea of the devastation.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Snippets - a Catholic carnival hosted by RAnn at "This That and the Other Thing."

My post this week: Delaware Valley Summer Institute lecture series

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My friend made me aware of this lecture series and I attended a couple of them last week. It was thoughtful of the organizers to leave off Thursday night so I could get to mass for the Assumption.

I enjoy visiting this charming part of NJ along the Delaware River. So much Revolutionary War history! Lambertville is especially quaint, like in some time warp. The architecture of these old churches says so much about the congregants' theology back then. It is supremely ironic that liberal denominations, like the PCUSA, have inherited these traditional structures while conservative offshoots branch into temporary space, in rented theaters, high school cafeterias and store fronts. At Sunday night's meeting, someone observed that the Baptist church was converting to a music hall. The first of the mainline denominations to fall prey to those hipster churches.

Granted, I went to the lectures with some interest in the announced topics but, as I generally find, Protestants spend much of their time talking about Catholicism. It's their "foil" and the darnedest thing. This speaker, with his experience in ecumenism, used medieval Catholicism as a contrast in how not to do "church." So he told of a Catholic German king whose palace had two chapels. The king met with his Protestant nobles in one and his family and clergy in the other. Somehow this was unsatisfactory to our speaker - "A poor understanding of church!" Seemed perfectly fine to me!

The speaker expressed having great hope in Pope Francis's papacy, and his favorable remarks garnered some positive acknowledgement from the audience. In other words, he didn't receive any "boos." The speaker said that, in his opinion, St. Francis of Assisi was the most Protestant of the Catholic saints, in terms of seeking church reform, so anyone taking Assisi's name is announcing personal interest in contemporary reform. The good professor ought to read up on Catholic saints - there were plenty of reformers among them. And St. Francis was extremely Catholic.

I was sorry not to attend each lecture. Four consecutive nights is a commitment, especially an hour drive each way. During the Q&A, a visitor asked why the church displayed the American flag in one corner of the sanctuary and the Christian flag in the other corner. No one seemed to have an answer, not even the pastor of the church. "Just always been there." "Well, since when?" Some were troubled by it. Our speaker said that his German friends are offended by civil flags in churches because for years German churches were commanded to display the swastika. Excuse me, but the American flag has nothing to do with swastika and our government doesn't demand it.

First Presbyterian Church of Lambertville

Stockton Presbyterian Church

RAnn's weekly question: my religious autobiography

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sunday Snippets - a Catholic carnival hosted by RAnn at "This That and the Other Thing."

My post this week: Visiting a Trappist monastery

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I took the opportunity last Saturday and Sunday during a family-business trip to Western New York State to visit a Trappist monastery for some "hours" of prayer.

It had been 25 years since I visited this monastery, but the thing about monasteries is that they don't change much. For the record, my six year old daughter who accompanied me agreed that not much had changed in that span of time!

As if she would know!

Large, wooden doors can't keep out the world!

Saturday morning we arrived about an hour too early for Sext, or sixth hour prayer, which the monks observe at 11:15. We killed time visiting the gift shop and walking the grounds. The woman in the gift shop gave my daughter a couple of items for free.

She said it was in honor of "Our Lady." I thought she was probably a little too generous. Maybe they don't receive many youngsters. Of the archangel images, my daughter picked St. Gabriel and the only way I could tell them apart was from the first letter down the side, "Γ," gamma. I bought some cookies to bring to the family party later that afternoon.

Walking the grounds, we found many sections marked off as private, as you might expect. But we were free to walk along a path that connected the abbey with the retreat houses about a half-mile off. We went against the current initially, as several retreatants passed us on their way to prayer. Then as the hour of prayer approached, we turned back.

Of course, in the abbey's receiving room, one can wait by the hour without any sense of wearing out one's welcome. There's no need to make oneself "scarce."

Rustic hall to sanctuary

Windows from glass bottles, maybe of Genny Light1

Years ago, I'd bought the psalter that the abbey uses. I'm not sure how I came across it, maybe from the Paulist Press catalog. I liked the print type used2. And sure enough, when we entered the sanctuary for Sext, each place had a copy of that psalter available for use.

These days there are about 30 monks at the abbey. Mostly, they bake bread. Most are old, but some are young. They were founded from the Merton-famous Gethsemani in KY. I don't recall whether Merton ever visited, but Henri Nouwen wrote his Genesee diaries there.

Sext is brief and there were plenty of aids so I didn't have to work to hard to participate. A monk sang two lines and then the rest sang two lines, alternating that way. The melody was simple, the voices soft and gentle. This was not a performance in any way. One sensed that, of course, the monks would pray thus with or without non-Trappists present. They certainly didn't resent the public's presence. There wasn't even a sense of encouraging our participation beyond making sure everything was done properly. Crib notes at all the places with tips for participating.

The following morning, Sunday, we arrived in time for Terce, or third hour prayer, which segued gracefully into mass with the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin. Although many knew those Latin prayers, only the monks sang them. About a dozen monks presided as ordained priests. The readings were the same as elsewhere (Luke 12:13-21), but the sermon was made more powerful when preached by someone who lived so authentically meekness and simplicity. Here, my cynicism was met with integrity, at least 30 times over. If that weren't enough, they sang the Lord's Prayer in a way that didn't make me sick to my stomach. I can no longer say that I've never heard it sung well.

Geneseo and environs

The monks' website

1 My brother works for Genesee Beer
2 There's a sample on the cover, or Amazon allows a peek inside.