Geek Feast: How to Eat Like a Hobbit

Last weekend our offspring (minus Brendan, who’s at UMary, of course) and the Engel clan gathered at our house for a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. Of course, such a quest—nine-hours-plus of movie-watching—requires a substantial outlay of provisions. I came home from work that Friday afternoon to a house that rang with laughter and hobbit songs, and smelled of savory meats and sweet baked goods.

The eldest Miss Engel had cracked open her hobbit cookbook (and not a few eggs, I suspect), and the teens were busy filling meat pies, cooling fresh lembas and cupcakes, and preparing mushrooms for stuffing. Bacon-wrapped sausages and po-tay-toes (“boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew…”) rounded out the feast.

Rosebud had frosted the cupcakes: nine with blue circles to represent the Rings of Men, seven red ones for the Dwarf-lords, three in green for the elves, and five yellow-frosted cakes with delicate runes in black (“It’s some form of Elvish, but I can’t read it.”) translated as “One ring to rule them all.”

Mike and Stacy came over to eat after Jodi got home from work. The teens watched movies all night. We ate for days.

Hobbits eat well, as do Lord of the Rings geeks, it appears!

Aesthetic Witnesses: Using Beauty to Build the Kingdom

Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

The quote above is taken from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” published on Easter Sunday in 1999. I’ve been reflecting on that letter in terms of the saint’s call, beginning in the late 1970s, for a new evangelization, and also in the context of young Karol Wojtyla’s cultural resistance efforts with the Rhapsodic Theater during the period of Nazi control of Poland. The more I reflect, the more convinced I become that the arts—visual, literary, theatrical, and musical—as well as beauty defined more broadly, are ideal tools both of evangelization and of Catholic resistance and encouragement today.

Beauty in evangelization

Beginning with the artist as an image of God the Creator, St. John Paul II makes a strong case for the special vocation of the artist in service to the true, the good, and the beautiful; their ideal role as revealers of the Incarnation and the Good News; and the necessity of art to the Church and vice versa. Continue reading

Who Is This Mary?

When Brendan came home from college for Easter, one of the first things I noticed was a coarse metal chain around his wrist. It is a sign and reminder of Marian consecration, a total gift of self to God through Mary—a symbol of slavery, but of a good and holy kind—which says he is devoted to doing God’s will in the most perfect way he can, and that he is following his Blessed Mother’s lead in this.

Our local church has undertaken a parish-wide push for Marian consecration this month, using a 33-day self-guided mini-retreat published by Fr. Michael Gaitley as the book 33 Days to Morning Glory. Jodi, Gabe, Emma, Trevor, and I have undertaken this journey together, in hopes that we, too, will be chained to our Lady in mid-May.

The daily readings in this book are short, but thought-provoking, helping us to better understand why Catholics so venerate and so often turn to the Virgin Mary. What struck me this morning is this question: If Mary was sinless, married to a saintly carpenter, and raising a sinless Son, how is it that she was not known better in her day? I know how drawn I am to certain families in our community—families that strive for holiness even as they struggle with all the typical family dysfunction. How is it that Mary and the Holy Family didn’t have a constant throng of people at the door?

Several answers come to mind. First of all, perhaps people did flock to the house in Nazareth, but in the same way we do today. Perhaps they were exactly the sort of family that neighbors were drawn to: mothers confiding with Mary during play dates and nap time, men seeking Joseph’s advice as he worked in his wood shop, parents nudging their children to get to know Jesus because He seemed like a nice boy. Perhaps people realized they were an exceptional family, just not the Holy Family.

But how could they not have seen it?

Well, Mary’s perfect humility comes to mind. I tend to want recognition when I do good work or suffer in some way. Mary, I imagine, would have drawn no attention to herself, and even moreso than our other saints (who were, in fact, sinners), she would have downplayed any recognition she received as due to God and not herself.

And finally, we sinners have a tendency to project our weaknesses onto those around us. No doubt there were those around the Holy Family and Mary who thought they couldn’t possibly be as good as they appeared. The movie The Nativity Story does a great job of illustrating the effect of Mary’s unplanned pregnancy on people’s perception of her, culminating in people scowling from their doorways as Mary and Joseph begin their journey to Bethlehem. (They can feel the eyes upon them, and Joseph jokes to Mary: “They’re going to miss us!”)

Then it occurred to me that these three thoughts might characterize our response to Mary today, as well. We may turn to her as a friend and confidant, or even as a mother, without truly considering her virtue, her proximity to God, her influence as Queen of heaven and earth—without regard for her role as the model and mold of discipleship and humanity. We might not recognize her as powerful, the new Eve and the saint closest to her Son in all respects, because all of this results from a simple, humble yes: complete obedience and submission to God. And we may simply not think she’s “all that”—however good she may be, she’s not God, so why should we let her stand in between us and the Source of life, holiness, and joy?

My answer to this last question is simple: I know how often I’ve lost God, sought Him alone, and failed to find or reach Him. I know I need help. Who better to turn to than the creature like me who loved God best and followed Him perfectly?

 

Lenten Hits: Firelight Fridays

One of the most fruitful family sacrifices we undertook this Lent was to fast from electric lights after sunset on Fridays. We had already decided to abstain from television, movies, and video games for all of Lent, when I ran across an article by well-known atheist-to-Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler on the National Catholic Register website: “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” I proposed to the family that we undertake this fast at least once a week, and we decided on “firelight Fridays”once the sun went down on Friday evening, we would use nothing but candles in our house.

My hope was that, as Fulwiler suggests, this would spark a massive downshift in activity and draw us closer together as a family, around the flickering flames. It did exactly that.

The fact that we had already committed to shutting off the televisions for forty days laid a good foundation for Firelight Fridays, since that caused our older kids to break out board and card games and begin playing together and with Lily in ways we hadn’t seen in years. Soon they were inviting Jodi and me to play. Parcheesi, Sorry, Cribbage, Garbage, and head-to-head Solitaire were the favorites, and as darkness gathered late Friday, we would clear the coffee table in the living room, light several candles on a tray, and sit in a tight circle to talk, laugh, and play together. I discovered that Jazz 88 plays the blues all night on Fridays, which offered a suitable soundtrack to our “penitential” family time.

Usually we played together until some of us grew sleepy, then we talked, sprawled across the furniture and floors, until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Often we went to bed earlier that usual for a Friday, and still felt as though we’d had a very full evening, because our time together had started at sundown and was concentrated on the here and now, with the people we love. In retrospect, it strikes as similar to a silent retreat: when we reduce the distractions that keep our eyes and brains flitting about from one thing to the next, time stretches out and we expand to fill it.

By the end of Lent, I was ready to go full Amish and invest in candles for every day of the week. Lily—who each week would begin a countdown to candles on Tuesday or Wednesday—was close behind in her enthusiasm for continuing the practice.

Jodi and the older kids missed family movies and other typical Friday practices, so we compromised: We agreed that, beginning this spring we will commit to at least one Firelight Friday a month: indoors with candles in bad weather; outdoors at the fire pit in good.

Each Lent I worry that we’ll fall back into old patterns as Easter rolls ’round, and we will lose what we’ve gained from fasting. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up Lily from daycare. We hadn’t left Jennie’s driveway when she asked if she could have a snack and watch a show when she got home.

“You can have a snack,” I said, “but we’ll have to wait and see about a show.”

When we got home, she got herself a snack while I put aside my work and started thinking about supper. Next thing I knew, Lily was setting up Clue Jr. to practice playing it by herself. She made no mention of watching a show for the rest of the evening.

If unplugging and lighting candles can work such a change in our biggest little screen junkie, that, to me, is a sacrifice worth sustaining.

Reliving My Childhood

Yeah, that’s the look!

I have a confession to make: I have spent the last few weeks with a goofy grin on my face, reliving my childhood. It began back in November when, for the first time in many year, I finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and decided against my original intentions to begin The Lord of the Rings trilogy immediately. These were my favorite books as a child and teen, and indeed, I still have the Special Silver Jubilee Edition paperbacks I grew up with — tattered, torn, and taped back together again. I have meant to turn back to them for some time now, considering that the the last time I read and loved them I was less than half the age I am now and neither Catholic nor even Christian in any meaningful way.

Consider this as well: for the past 14 years, the only substantive interaction I’ve had with the peoples and history of Middle Earth has been through the hit movies (and an occasional comment from my older two sons, who have read them in the interim). Truly I underestimated the impact of regular exposure to the films without reading the books. I had forgotten just how wonderful these stories really are!

Somewhat disturbing, but it was all I had!

You see, I had grown up with the Ralph Bakshi animated movies and had not loved them. I daydreamed about what the characters and places would look like in real life. In high school, I ran across a hardcover edition of The Complete Guide to Middle Earth with this image on the cover (the rest of the fellowship shows up on the back), and it fueled those daydreams for many more years.

Loved it, except for Aragorn as a musketeer? And Pippin’s hat…

So when the first of The Lord of the Rings movies was released, my love was deep, fueled by the imagery and fanned by a long absence from the text. As I re-read the stories in recent weeks, I was drawn back in: to the breadth and scope of Middle Earth; to the perils at every stage of the journey to Bree, Rivendell, and Mordor; to the practical concerns of traveling unseen across an unfriendly landscape; to the brutality of war and love of honor, fellowship, and song–and of course a pipe and a pint. I shook my head in disbelief, I grinned, I laughed out loud — I even choked up a time or two!

I also realized how utterly short the movies fall. Not simply because of what was left out or added — but in terms of the overall tone and message of the story.

Then on Tuesday I took the older four kids to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars has even deeper roots in my childhood psyche: these are the first movies I remember loving, and those stiff plastic action figures are the first toys I ever craved and collected. Even as a grade-schooler I think I recognized that Star Wars had all the elements of the stories I liked best: aliens and spaceships, swords and sorcery, a “lone ranger” and his native sidekick in a rough-and-tumble desert wasteland. Of course, The Empire Strikes Back was the best of three original movies, and of course, Han Solo was the best character — both for the same reason: I was beginning to realize that life wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, and people aren’t always perfect. From that standpoint, Empire seemed very real to me, and Han Solo gave me hope that even a scoundrel could find a way to rise above.

So imagine my delight the first time this image started circulating the Web:

“Who’s scruffy-looking?”

Much has been made about how the new Star Wars movie is a throwback to originals, with so many iconic images like this one that call to mind the movies I grew up with. But on top of that, I found a sense of wonder and chemistry that the three prequels abandoned in favor of spectacle and special effects. Again, I shook my head in disbelief, I grinned, I laughed out loud — I even choked up a time or two. I was a kid again.

Blogger’s Note: I will likely write a more thorough post on each of these experiences in the near future. In the meantime, let me say that, without a doubt, Han shot first. He always more Clint Eastwood than John Wayne, anyway — more of a Lone anti-Ranger than the Lone Ranger himself. Also, if I can’t be Sam Elliott in my elder years, I’ll be Harrison Ford.