instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, October 02, 2006

Heart and hearth

Reading a review copy of Meredith Gould's book The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days, and Every Day, has got me thinking about the trend in certain circles to rediscover Catholic traditions.

The book itself I can dispatch by saying I don't recommend it at all. It's a messy jumble, seemingly of whatever the author could think of to write on the various topics that come up. I can forgive the messy jumble -- I blog, after all -- but between the inaccuracies (Advent begins the Sunday after St. Andrew's Day? You pray the Glorious Mysteries "on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Easter until Advent"?) and the peculiar advice she gives (she dismisses as unreasonable the idea of buying the four volume Liturgy of the Hours, for example, while advising everyone to take an icon writing workshop), I get the sense of a great deal of enthusiasm for physical expressions of faith, but not much ordered spiritual depth.

But to the trend of reviving Catholic traditions: What is happening, it seems to me, is not so much a rediscovery of traditions as an interest in discovering any and every tradition. The Swedes do St. Lucy's wreaths? The Italians do St. Joseph's tables? The Poles bless food baskets on Holy Saturday? Great, let's do them all! Isn't that "what Catholics do"?

Well, it might be what Swedish-Polish-Italian Catholics do, if any such exist. I'm not sure it's quite true to say it's what German-Irish-American Catholics do, though.

I do like to read about these various traditions, though, and I'm not above adapting some of them to my own time and place. (Particularly the ones involving food. Particularly the foods involving fried dough.)

To the extent adopting various traditions out of a book or off the Net helps Catholics enter into the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, it's great. I'd caution against a too-dogmatic approach, as though adapting a custom to our time and place is somehow a betrayal -- you can bet the peasants who first made it a custom had no hesitation to change things around -- but my guess is there aren't too many dogmatists on, say, the question of whether anything but goose can be served on Martinmas.

Still, considering that Catholics in the United States today are, to a much greater degree than Catholics of previous generations, cut off from a rich body of cultural and spiritual traditions, we would do well to look around, and even forward, in addition to looking back, for the sort of actions and activities that will sanctify these days and those to come. Few of us live in medieval Catholic villages, and our means for achieving sanctity of heart and of hearth are not necessarily those that worked hundreds of years ago on another continent.

In particular, there aren't going to be too many venerable peasant customs of praying the Divine Office or of lectio divina, but I'll guess they will lead to living an authentic Catholic life better than any number of bonfires or cakes.