Family 2: Archie

Archie Boucher worked in the local textile mill, like almost all of the young people in their Rhode Island village. He couldn’t help noticing lively young Peggy Lorimer, who had lately come from Scotland to live with her aunt and uncle. She was always laughing and having fun with her friends, but she seemed so shy when she saw him. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. Those eyes, though. He had never seen that shade of blue before. When he saw her coming out of the grocery one afternoon, looking up in dismay at the sudden rain, he took his chance.

“May I offer you a walk home under my umbrella?”

After Archie and Peggy married, he went to work for the A&P, and eventually became their produce manager. They soon had a daughter, whom they named Margaret, after her mother, and Peggy spent all of the baby’s nursing time stroking the sides of her nose so that it would be narrow, unlike her own. It worked—or perhaps Margaret just inherited her father’s nose. She certainly inherited her mother’s deep blue eyes, although they were never the clear, cornflower blue of Peggy’s own. They doted on little Margaret, who turned out to be a beauty. As much as their tiny budget would allow, they dressed her in the finest clothes and saw that she was always the prettiest girl in town.

Peggy never learned to cook well, but she could manage bacon and eggs, when they had them. Archie, on the other hand, was an artist in the kitchen. On Saturdays, he spent hours making the meals for the coming week. Pies were his specialty, and flaky crusts flew from his fingertips. Tortière, a Québécois delicacy, was always on the list. His father, Octave, may have had some influence on Archie’s tastes, although the surrounding area was soaked in French culture, as well, from the restaurants to the street names.

Jessie Comerford, Archie’s mother, was having none of it. The Comerfords were a fine New England family, stretching back almost to the Mayflower, and there was no way that Jessie was going to allow any children of hers to spoil that Yankee heritage by becoming Roman Catholics like all of these immigrants pouring into the country. It was a wonder to everyone that she had married Octave Boucher, that French Canadian Catholic. Perhaps it was because her Mr. Davis had died, leaving her with four little ones to feed. Perhaps it was one look at Octave’s comely face. In any case, he had given her two more boys, Archie and Raymond.

At the end of Jessie’s days, it fell to Archie and Peggy to care for her until she died. At an opportune moment, when her husband wasn’t around, Jessie begged Archie to promise her that he would always remain a Protestant, and that he would persuade his younger brother, Raymond, to do the same. He promised, not being a very religious man at all, anyway, and when little Margaret rejoiced to join Octave at Mass, he turned away and pretended not to notice.

Nine years after Margaret’s arrival, a son was born, and they named him Ralph after Archie’s older half-brother. It was the mid 1930s, and the family was enduring difficult times, as was everyone during the Depression. Archie was too proud to sign up for handouts at town hall, and the day came when the little family of four had nothing. The weather was turning cool when Archie put on his winter coat for the first time that year and went out to walk and pray. As he paced up and down the streets, he put his hands in his pockets to warm them, and one hand touched a silver dollar. He never knew how it came to be there, but he ran to the store and bought rice, bread, and other food to feed his children for a week. Time rolled on, jobs came back, but he made sure that his family remembered that God had answered his prayer when he needed Him most.

We remember, Grandad.

Family 1: Peggy

There was nothing sweet or gentle about Glasgow. As Peggy stood out in front of her mother’s house, she shivered in the bitter cold. She wasn’t allowed in the house– her mother’s orders. Even though she could no longer live with her mother or her younger siblings, she understood. Factory work was hard at age fourteen, but manual labor was much easier for Peggy and her younger sister, Betty, to bear than the fear of their new stepfather in the middle of the night. Her mother had many mouths to feed, but she had to protect her girls somehow. Reality could be as harsh as a Glasgow winter.

This day, two years after Peggy had been forced to live apart from her family, her mother ran outside with the news that they all had longed for: Auntie Taggart had sent passage for Peggy and Betty! They were to board the ship Columbia for the Promised Land, America. As they hugged and laughed, they had tears running down their cheeks. Her mother had accomplished her dearest wish for her oldest girls, but now she might never see them again.

We don’t know what my grandmother’s life was like, living in Rhode Island with her aunt and her family, but she probably never went to school again. She’d been a hard worker her entire life, and she was expected to earn her keep at her aunt’s house. One day, though, when she was leaving the neighborhood grocery store, it started to rain, and a miracle happened. Handsome Archie Boucher stepped forward and offered to walk her home under his umbrella. She, Peggy the foreigner, with her thick brogue and pug nose, was walking home with Archie. The stars never fell from her eyes.

Benedict on the Porch 2

The Church

Benedict Option A couple of weeks ago, our group met again to discuss Rod Dreher’s insights on the church and community. Please see my earlier post, “Benedict on the Porch 1,” below, and the review of the book, The Benedict Option, on EatReadSleep, here.

Dreher believes that, just as everything that we do in our personal lives should be an outgrowth of prayer, everything that Christians do in the world should start in the church.

Our session started off with an energetic conversation about Bernie Sanders’ interrogation of Russell Vought for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Budget and Management. In case you really didn’t believe that the church is under attack, Senator Sanders will undeceive you here.  He concluded by saying that Mr. Vought was ineligible for any post in the government because he truly believes that human beings are only saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and that therefore Muslims are condemned. The senator did not, however, inquire as to whether Muslims believe that Mr. Vought is condemned because he does not believe as they do. Following the senator’s logic, only those who do not have any real beliefs are eligible to serve in the government, although claiming a religion as ethnic identity can be charming. We all know that really nice people are secular.

Tradition and Liturgy

Rod Dreher argues that “we are seeing the collapse of Christian civilization because Christians in the West have badly neglected sustaining their own distinct culture.” (pp. 100-101) The very word “culture” comes from a Latin word that means emerging from the common worship of a group of people. Our traditions are important because of the wisdom our ancestors had in creating them. One suggestion that our entire group agreed with was Dreher’s call for a return to worshipping with the whole body. We are physical creatures, and ancient worship services, now preserved in liturgical churches, used motion and all of the body’s senses. Changing positions in appropriate ways—kneeling, standing, sitting, even prostrating oneself—built muscle memory into the entire church at once. Incense, ringing bells (“smells and bells”) appealed to the senses, just as beautiful artwork, traditional prayers, and songs will do. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were given to us because they are tangible signs to earthly creatures, and our current worship traditions should follow that pattern.

On the other hand, we were not as convinced by Dreher’s firm stance on the superiority of liturgical worship over lower-church services. We had some interesting discussions about the meaning of liturgy, and the point at which an order of worship crosses over into liturgy. I took the opportunity to share one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes, from Holy the Firm.

The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

My problem with this chapter is that Mr. Dreher seems to see Christianity and Western civilization as either the same thing, or at least inextricably intertwined. Although I am very concerned about the disaster taking place in the West, and I consider European culture to be extraordinarily valuable and foundational to our own nation, I fear that only a white person would believe that Christianity itself could only be saved through European and American institutions. The church is growing fastest today in southern Africa and Asia, and the roots of Christian faith are in Asia, not Europe. As I’ve said before, Mr. Dreher takes us back to 600 AD, while 100 AD would be so much more supportable. So, while I would enthusiastically join efforts to save Western civilization, one must think even more deeply to purify the church.

Asceticism and Discipline

The author also advises entire churches to practice asceticism together as a regular Christian discipline. Greek Orthodox believers, like Dreher, fast every Wednesday and Friday, all year long. In addition, he feels that churches should practice biblical church discipline. If the church is truly an organism, as Paul calls us all members of one body, should we not remove diseased parts of the body if we wish to be healthy? Discipline of any kind is anathema to Americans, especially when imposed from without, but church discipline, properly applied, is a bracing tonic both to the members inside, who can breathe more easily without fighting evil on an individual basis, and to the observers on the outside, who may be surprised and heartened to find authority exercised righteously in a culture with no absolute standards.

Goodness and Beauty

The church should draw people in with goodness and beauty. Art is a tough one. True art may be in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t see a lot of great art coming out of the church today. The church that once produced Bach and Dürer now puts out “Got Jesus?” bumper stickers based on a secular ad campaign for milk. When we do find writers, musicians, or other artists producing great work, let us support them!

Finally, goodness should be the mark of every Christian. “The greatest of these is love,” as Paul says in the famous 1 Corinthians passage. However, the wider world may not see goodness and love from us these days. Let us repair that breach. If, as Dreher believes, we may increasingly experience suffering, let it be while we are serving others in the love of Jesus, in goodness and self-sacrifice.

Next time: Community. It wasn’t what we thought.

Running the Race

Today I had my annual physical. Decades of my life went by without much care for this irksome event, but now I’m grateful when my doctor lets me go for six months without seeing her. Everything went very well, but I still need to visit a bevy of specialists, since this is The Year of Many Tests, so I will see my radiologist, optometrist, and, alas, gastroenterologist within the next couple of months. Once again, my doctor talked to me about a Living Will, and for the first time, I paid attention.

A few months ago, our life insurance agent contacted us to let us know that our term life insurance would expire next year. When you’re just starting out, life insurance seems like your Get Out of Jail Free card in case of some extraordinary catastrophe. A stay-at-home mom with young kids needs to able to stay in her house if she suddenly becomes a single mom. Now that David and I have buried all of our parents, though, we have a very accurate picture of the expenses incurred at the end of a life in America. It’s obscene. Between the cost of critical care at a hospital and the funeral director’s horrifying ideas of a decent burial, including a medallion with the dearly departed’s fingerprint (yuck!), your loved ones can be left with staggering bills. Keeping up one’s medical insurance is essential, but carrying huge life insurance policies is crazy, so we are figuring out the ethics and necessities for a time when we won’t be here.

David and I had a conversation recently in which I fretted that I would die before I figured everything out—life, death, afterlife, the universe, why we put vegetable scraps into the compost pile every single day but never get compost—all that stuff. Perhaps I am the only one, but I never feel spiritual enough or wise enough for someone who has lived for almost six decades. With all the reading, studying, and praying I’ve done, surely I should be floating through life a few inches above the ground, looking serene and spouting philosophical gems. Instead, I am increasingly aware of all that I don’t know, all the books I haven’t read, and all the time I didn’t spend serving in soup kitchens but instead did laundry.

At the same time, I don’t “think” old. Sometimes I feel old, but not much. This is the secret of old age: you are still the same person. I read a lot of children’s and teens’ books, so maybe my brain stays in that space. Furthermore, I don’t have anyone calling me Grandma—yet. I still listen to the same kinds of music that I have for years, which grows ever more raucous, even though people seem to think that your music should get quieter with age. I even thought of a tiny, little “righteous Hebrew tat” that I could put in a discreet place. Then I took a good look at the state of my skin and thought, “Ew. No.” I do wish that more people would consider this. I recently saw a woman in a parking lot who had obviously lived a rugged life under the sun with a full-sleeve tattoo on one arm. It needed ironing.

It is boringly responsible to take care of the practical details that aging brings, but there’s no reason stop living with gusto. I have not been able to save the world yet, but perhaps that’s not why I’m here. However, being an excellent wife to my husband is something no one else can do, so I will do that. Tomorrow, I can go to work and choose brilliant new books that may improve the lives of thousands of children whom I may not know personally, but still care about deeply, and I will do that. I can find ways to show love to my wonderful family and friends and to the people in my little community, so I will do that, too. And of course, I will keep on praying and listening to what the Lord has to tell me. From what I hear about the afterlife He has planned, the future is looking bright.