I started out making a conscious effort not to ever wear liturgical colors. Every parish I went to had some lady neatly turned out in a red, green, or purple outfit to match the season and the feast. I remember being self-conscious enough not to wear purple when it wasn’t Lent. But then when it was Lent I also didn’t wear purple, so as not to match. Green was even easier, since I didn’t have any green clothes. For Saint Patrick’s day I put on a ceramic brooch with a green flower on it.

Red was my downfall. I love red, and have lots of red clothes. Sometimes I’d accidentally wear red on a martyr’s feast, but I was rarely caught off guard by the seasonal cycles and deliberately didn’t wear red on Pentecost or the feast of the Sacred Heart.

I must say the effort put into the outfits by those matching ladies I’ve seen was remarkable. It wasn’t a matter of a red tee-shirt or purple dress. It was in every case complex outfits comprising blouses, skirts, jackets, hats, shoes and purses. The style was a rather indeterminate early to mid 20th century. It was both very self-conscious and also admirable for the effort.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever reach those starry heights, but today, despite it being the feast of the Sacred Heart, I found myself reaching for a red blouse and heart necklace. Whatever reticence I used to have has been replaced by a cheerful sense of fun.

A Dreadful Night

I once spent a rather miserable night on an island in the Amazon. It was in the 1990s, and my husband and I (perhaps not yet married?) were having an adventurous trip on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the Amazon river. On this day we had arrived by boat in a tiny village of no particular importance, using it as a stop-over on the way to the next larger town where we could catch the ferry back to the mainland. We arrived with our standard issue enormous backpacks and set out to find a hotel. Hotels were not to be found.

We asked a bemused local for advice and he suggested we ask the priest if we could use the guest house. The priest, a fat, lame and possibly excommunicated Jesuit, handed us off to a local teenager who cheerfully led us to the guest house. On the way he offered to shoot various wild animals, such as a vulture soaring overhead, just so we could see them. We asked him not to.

We arrived at the house, a cute clapboard cottage raised up on stilts to avoid tidal flooding. The young man hopped up the wooden steps and flung open the front door. Dozens of enormous spiders scattered into the darkness. A handful of large wasps buzzed in the now-sun-filled entry hall, annoyed at the sudden change of scenery. “A lady will come clean in a few minutes,” chirped the boy. “Just leave your bags inside. But don’t put them on the floor, so they don’t get bugs in them.” I looked desperately at my husband. I could not bring myself to set foot in a house filled with giant spiders, let alone angry wasps and mysterious floor-bugs. No amount of some lady waving a broom around was going to fix that situation. Fortunately he had sympathy for my panic and found a polite way to suggest perhaps another option could be found?

The boy pondered a bit, then suggested perhaps we could stay at the community center. We trekked back to the priest’s house, got a different set of keys, and walked over to an ample rectangular building of weathered board. Inside was a large space for community meetings, women’s sewing projects, and other group activities. It was simple, with only the plain board floors and walls, a few windows with single wooden shutters, and a small toilet room in one corner. The wooden posts supporting the roof provided a place to tie our hammocks. Hammocks were a nice way to avoid floor-bugs and spiders, so we happily accepted the new offer.

A bit later in the evening the boy returned, inviting us to go to the only bar to hear some local music. We had a beer and probably some fried snack foods while enjoying some local folk songs and guitar. Midway through the meal a gentle old woman came in, decided I was a long lost friend or relative, and sat next to me, clutching my hand and chatting happily. I was slightly unnerved, but sympathetic, and spent the next hour or two smiling back at her and nodding dumbly while she chattered.

When we were too tired to see straight the teenager walked us back to the community center. He passed the time telling us the local stories of the headless mule one sees at the cross-roads, the phantom black dog that appears when someone is going to die, and other ghostly tales. By the time we reached the community center I was terrified. I lay in my hammock sweating from the heat as well as nerves. Finally, too nervous to stay alone in the total darkness I begged my husband to let me sleep in his hammock with him. To fend off mosquitos, I draped a sheet over the two of us. Two people pressed together by a hammock while covered with a sheet in an equatorial climate was misery. Between the fear, the heat, and the endless unfamiliar noises I didn’t sleep a wink.

When I finally heard a cock crow I leapt from the hammock, ran to the bathroom, and then ran outside to enjoy some cool fresh air. I’ve never been so happy to see a day arrive.

The internet didn’t exist when we were there, but the little museum the Jesuit had built in this village is still there, and has a website!! Check it out!

Great Geeky Girls

Here are some of my favorite geeky girls who have fun YouTube channels:

Sam van Fleet: This girl picks out wild mustangs, trains them from zero, and shows and sells them. When I was that age I don’t think I was doing anything useful. I love watching her attentive, careful training and listening to her thoughtful analysis of what’s going on with her horses. I used to have horses and did some training, so it’s a rabbit hole I’m thrilled to re-experience vicariously. Also impressive: Camille’s Mustangs. Really lovely to watch these young women working.

Karolina Żebrowska: Karolina has quirky interests mostly involving the history of clothing. She’s a funny story teller and I love watching her walk through her careful research on oddball subjects like “What would Snow White really have worn?” Since I do some sewing and embroidery (at a very basic level!) it’s inspiring to watch Karolina work with sewing projects, too.

Bernadette Banner: Another expert in historical costume, and also a great story-teller. My favorite so far is when she bought a Chinese knock-off of one of her own dresses to compare to the original. Her projects are always exotic and entertaining.

Nicola White: Apparently people in England go hunting for lost treasures in the tidal mud of the river Thames. This is somewhat gross, but also adventurous and rewarding. They find dead people, lost jewelry, strange artifacts…after all, the area has been inhabited for centuries, and the inhabitants have spent those centuries chucking stuff in the river… In any case, Nicola has a particular knack for story telling and her videos are intriguing and fun.

Musical Notation is Beautiful: The lovely woman who does this video series (Elba, if I caught her name correctly in the video?) gives fascinating accounts of different kinds of musical notation. If you like early music, calligraphy, medieval arts, or any related subject, check this out!

Caitlin Doughty: Widely known for her video series about death. Caitlin is a mortician and has all kinds of interesting stories to tell about modern and historic deaths, the biology of death, weird and interesting facts about dying and funerals. She’s also a good story teller and her videos are very engaging.

Speaking of death, I must add a fun watch, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, who has written a book of religious meditations on death and appeared on several television programs and podcasts to talk about it. Sister Aletheia doesn’t have her own channel, but you can see several of the interviews here.

Agere Contra

Do you ever not want to go to Mass? Do you have all kinds of reasons? Here are a few:

1) It’s no longer obligatory.

1a) It’s obligatory, and that’s an impingement on my freedom. 

2) Nobody there likes me.

2a) I’m an introvert and can’t stand the socializing.

3) The people near me talk during Mass.

3a) Nobody will talk to me.

4) It’s a half-hour drive.

4a) It’s too early in the morning.

5) The bathrooms are kind of icky.

5a) There are no bathrooms.

5b) The bathrooms are down a flight of stairs in the basement and I have bad knees and a bad bladder.

6) I might run into the person I had an argument with a few years ago and haven’t spoken to since.

6a) I might run into that irritating guy from work.

6b) That family with the whining kids will probably sit behind me.

7) The air conditioning isn’t very good.

7a) The heat doesn’t work.

8) It’s a drag bringing heavy books along. 

8a) Everyone is staring at the daily reading app on their phone.

9) The music is atrocious.

9a) They won’t let me sing in the choir.

9b) I don’t want to sing in the choir and now they’re offended and think I’m a snob.

10) It’s supposed to be this amazing supernatural event, and everyone traipses around irreverently.

10a) Everyone’s traipsing around with such fussy reverence that charity’s gone out the window.

11) I hate wearing a covid mask.

11a) Other people there aren’t wearing their masks like they should.

12) People come in wearing awful inappropriate clothes.

12a) I hate having to dress up for Mass. What does God care?

13) The beggars outside the church make me nervous.

13a) I’d rather sit outside with the beggars than inside with all those hypocrites.

14) This priest gives the longest, most boring sermons ever.

14a) This priest thinks he’s an entertainer, with his boisterous sermons.

15) The altar servers are incompetent, it’s so irreverent.

15a) They use girls as altar servers, it’s so irreverent.

15b) I would never be an altar server, I’d be afraid of being criticized for messing up.

16) All they want is money.

16a) You’d think they could maintain the church, it’s falling apart. 

17) There aren’t any interesting parish activities.

17a) Everyone’s always trying to rope me into participating in parish activities.

18) They never have confession scheduled before Mass.

18a) The lines for confession are too long.

18b) No one has a right to tell me how to live my life. 

19) This priest is too rigid, always talking about hell.

19a) This priest is too lax, as if everyone’s going to heaven.

19b) I brought my gay friend once and the priest had to choose that day to preach about sodomy.

20) The Magisterium is clearly a bunch of hypocrites. Why should I show support for that by showing up?

When My Lord was crucified, how many stayed with him? Can I be one of them?

illustration from the Speculum Darmstadt

Off Schedule

Despite Lent I am fascinated with Christmas: In reading about the Nativity I got sidetracked by the detail of swaddling clothes (previous post), and then by the annunciation to the shepherds. Here are some notes I copied from the Catena Aurea, in case such things interest you. In Scripture every word is considered, a person or event or detail is never mentioned without significance. Which leads to no end of little details to meditate on:

Ambrose: with what care God builds up our faith: “An Angel teaches Mary; an Angel teaches Joseph; an Angel the shepherds also…”

Chrysostom: “To Joseph the Angel appeared in a dream, as to one who might be easily brought to believe, but to the shepherds in visible shape as to men of ruder nature. But the Angel went not to Jerusalem, sought not for Scribes and Pharisees, (for they were corrupt and tormented with envy.) But these [shepherds] were simple men living in the ancient practices of Moses and the Patriarchs. There is a certain road which leads by innocence to Philosophy.”

Bede: No where in the whole course of the Old Testament do we find that the Angels who so constantly appear to the Patriarchs, came with light. This privilege was rightly kept for this time when there arose in the darkness a light to them that were true of heart. Hence it follows, and the glory of God shone round about them. He is sent forth from the womb, but He shines from heaven. He lies in a common inn, but He lives in celestial light.

Cyril: on anointing: Christ – anointed, like the kings of old, or by prophetic grace, like Isaiah says to Cyrus (Isaiah 45), or as in the anointing by the Holy Spirit, as God Himself anoints those who believe in Him.

Why do they keep saying he is in swaddling clothes? Not, as in my previous post, to emphasize that he was not naked, which probably was assumed, but rather to emphasize that he was not born into riches:

Bede: “the sign given us of the newborn Saviour was, that He would be found not clothed in Tyrian purple, but wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, not laying on gilded couches, but in a manger”

Maximus: “But if perhaps the swaddling clothes are mean in thy eyes, admire the Angels singing praises together. If thou despisest the manger, raise thy eyes a little, and behold the new star in heaven proclaiming to the world the Lord’s nativity. If thou believest the mean things, believe also the mighty. If thou disputest about those which betoken His lowliness, look with reverence on what is high and heavenly.”

Of the heavenly chorus singing: 

Gregory: “At the same time they also give praises because their voices of gladness accord well with our redemption, and while they behold our acceptance, they rejoice also that their number is complete.”

Origen: “How then does the Saviour say, I came not to send peace on the earth, whereas now the Angels’ song of His birth is, On earth peace to men? It is answered, that peace is said to be to men of good will. For the peace which the Lord does not give on the earth is not the peace of good will.”

Augustine: “For righteousness belongs to good will.”

The shepherds go in haste (Ambrose, “For no one indolently seeks after Christ.”). And they find Mary, Joseph and the babe, listed in that order… so not just Christ, but the Holy Family named so: first Mary, then Joseph, then Jesus.

Taddeo Gaddi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


An elderly priest with a weak memory once confided that his strategy for keeping track of students at the seminary was to nickname them by physical characteristics. He told me a few of the nicknames, and I must admit that while I also have a terrible time remembering common names, it was easy as pie to remember “Itchy” or “Skyscraper” or “Fatty”. It reminded me of the way fragments of visual memory linger for decades: the astonishing width of the librarian’s hips; the startling height of a man in the supermarket; the strange blond afro of a pale boy in band; the bold dragging gait of a tiny girl with deformed legs.

Such details constantly draw my eye even now. Why the fascination? Is it because there is something out of the ordinary there? A body moving out of rhythm with the jouncing crowd? Probably in part, as the same attention grabs everyone when someone on the crowded street suddenly leaps or runs or falls. Perhaps, too, because the bent bodies, limping gaits, and twisted feet remind me of my own fragility. As when a twinge in the back spirals into thoughts of arthritis and osteoporosis, or even (in anxious times) strange fatal diseases or the tortures afflicted on prisoners.

Unusual things become points of memory, too. Like the large oak where we stop to rest in a forest of slender maples. There’s a relief in the familiarity of seeing the same people in the same place every day. The world seems to be carrying on peacefully when the landmarks are there. Even a stranger, notable only for his twisted legs or sideways gait, is missed when he vanishes for a few weeks.

It makes more interesting the odd suffering of the invisible: those who seem all alike. At a new job the easily remembered quirky folks are a relief, and the panic comes from the myriad secretaries and managers with matching heights, weights, hair cuts, and fashion choices.

Or, in another context, there is deliberate sameness. I recall a story about a monk who never learned the names or faces of his brothers, as he took to heart the introspective discipline of keeping his eyes on the floor. It points to a different priority: that of treating each equally like Christ.

“Master of Imola, The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks, 1265/1274, miniature on vellum, overall: 46.8 x 36 cm (18 7/16 x 14 3/16 in.), Rosenwald Collection, 1946.21.12”