Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet

51GQVVRpSRL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Romeo and Juliet…sigh. I remember watching the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes version many times in middle school and high school. The romance! The passion! And fate! Oh, it was the perfect love story in my eyes, except, of course, the ending, which always left me heart-broken and disappointed that the story never changed.

Twenty years later I’ve returned to my favorite Shakespearean work with a book from Ignatius Press called Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet by Joseph Pearce. Pearce examines the story of the star-crossed lovers through the lens of history and religion and offers overwhelming evidence that the bard was not, in fact, holding up this relationship as the ideal of romantic love but had instead crafted a powerful cautionary tale against lust and the perils that come from absent authority figures. As a mother, I find this reading of the story deeply gratifying, and Romeo and Juliet remains my favorite work by Shakespeare, though now for different reasons. For the skeptics, I will let you read the book and be persuaded by Pearce himself, but I will leave you with the most telling evidence of this reading: Shakespeare’s own daughter was thirteen when he wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Perhaps even more surprising to the modern reader than the possibility that Shakespeare was not advocating for a person to totally abandon himself to his passions might be Shakespeare’s views on moral relativism. In the third act, after Romeo had been banished from Verona for killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt shortly after having married Juliet but before their marriage had been consummated, Romeo and Friar Lawrence have an exchange that centers on punishment, justice, and mercy. The Prince, instead of having Romeo killed outright for his crime, banishes him from the city: an act of mercy. Romeo, in his self-centeredness, cannot see this as an act of mercy because he still cannot have what he wants: Juliet, who remains in Verona. Pearce says this confusion of mercy (being exiled instead of killed) with hell (Romeo despairs because he is still apart from Juliet) is madness, and Friar Lawrence says just the same, calling Romeo a “mad man” (3.3.52).

Romeo, being scolded by the friar for not seeing mercy where mercy justly is, retorts:

Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered,
Doting like me, and like me banished,
Then mightest thou speak. (3.3.64)

Pearce notes, “Romeo’s riposte is the relativist position stripped of all sophistry. He asserts that his own feelings are the only judge of reality” (p. 101). The friar denounces this thinking as “mad” and the fruit of Romeo’s self-referential morality is suicide. If we ourselves are sole judges of our existence, there will no doubt come a time in our lives when we decide that existing is far too painful. We all need a higher authority to save us from ourselves.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Shakespeare on Love serves as a great reminder of what love truly is and offers a sure guide in reading Shakespeare, a must-read, especially if you have a teenager in the house.

 

Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer

Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour

51ZXZVYYnWL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Dear friends of ours for Christmas gave my husband (although I’ve been a faithful reader of it, too) the wonderful read Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour by Michael P. Foley. It embodies the spirit (and spirits!) of Catholicism perfectly.

Laid out by calendar year, the book marches through the various feast days in the Church’s calendar, pairing a cocktail with each saint. My husband and I recently had a Monk (two parts gin to one part lemon juice and Benedictine) in honor of St. Maurus, the first disciple of St. Benedict who was once ordered by the famous monk to run out over a lake to save a drowning brother.

Foley writes about the saints in a modern, colorful, and engaging way, sharing stories that I’d often never heard of before. He also writes with great knowledge on the history of the many types of spirits whose stories are intertwined with those of the saints.

This fun, smart, beautiful book embodies the richness of our faith, captured by the author in the foreword:

And I am in accord with G. K. Chesterton, who is said to have converted to Catholicism because it was the only religion that could reconcile the pipe, the pint, and the Cross.

We could sit on the back porch all night and discuss why this is so over a good bottle of scotch or bourbon, but at the risk of cutting the conversation short let me suggest that the ultimate cause is both a gratitude for the goodness of creation as well as an understanding of that creation as “sacramental.” To the Catholic mind, not only can earthly, physical things be turned by the agency of God into channels of divine, invisible grace (as we see with the seven sacraments), but all creation is sacramentum, or “divine sign,” pointing to the luminous goodness of God. Like William Blake, Catholics see a world in a grain of sand and a Heaven in a wildflower. And they even get a foretaste of that Heaven in the simple pleasures of table and tavern (ix).

God in His great goodness made a glorious world for us to enjoy and an abundance of heavenly friends to show us how. Michael Foley’s book will give you a greater appreciation of both kinds of spirits that can help us see His great love for us.

Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer

In the Showroom

My husband and I follow the salesman to his office, admiring the gleaming sports cars in the showroom. He sits at his desk and we opposite him. He turns on his computer, and my husband glances at a little yellow number through the glass walls. Its rims sparkle in the sunshine.

“So, we’re looking at a twelve-passenger van today?” the salesman says, scrolling through the results on his screen.

We chuckle, sort of, and say yes. He nods seriously, perhaps not daring to laugh along with us. He prints out the model—there is only one—and sets the pages in front of us. We discuss the highlights of the vehicle—its seating—and its safety features—its size. We work through the literature and on the third page are a school bus and an ambulance parked artfully at the bottom.

“So, I won’t need a commercial driver’s license, right?” I ask and laugh, sort of. He assures me that I do not, as they often are sold to school districts to transport kids for field trips. The cargo vans, he adds, have been very popular with businesses this past year.

He turns to his computer again to see if there are any vans nearby for us to test drive and my husband reminds me that what he really wants is a motorcycle.

As he laughs, I admire his lovely blue eyes and think for a moment about our nine years of marriage and five children, a beautiful life that’s resulted in one heck of an ugly car.

I pick up a picture of the hulking van. “It looks great,” I say.

Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer
“CORVETTE 1961-STEERING WHEEL2” by DodgertonSkillhause (2015) via Morguefile

Christmas, Marriage, and Joy to the World

51FExJIaC7L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_-2It took me a year to pick up Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does) due to an eight-and-a-half pound bundle who arrived at our house shortly after last Christmas. I’d been looking forward to reading it all year, and it did not disappoint. Dr. Hahn’s book is great for everyone, but I’d especially recommend it for those grumpy Catholics (myself included!) who are tempted to look down at Christmas as being less significant than the more austere, grander Lent and Easter. Joy to the World examines the theology behind the very familiar Christmas story and the significance of the Incarnation using scripture and history and makes a compelling case for why joy ought to be the hallmark of a true Christian spirituality.

Most astonishing to me was Dr. Hahn’s section on angels. Angels, we know, feature prominently in the Christmas story. We see the angel Gabriel asking Mary to become the Mother of God, the angels appearing to the shepherds to tell them of Christ’s birth, and possibly also in the Christmas “star” (perhaps another angel?). Dr. Hahn reminds us that Christ’s birth is a moment of “comeuppance” for the bad angels who despised God’s plan for the redemption of mankind through the Incarnation, a moment of glory for the good angels who consented to serve a God-made-man. Before the Incarnation, Dr. Hahn points out, the angels in the Old Testament terrified those to whom they appeared. After, however, the angels offer messages of peace, now our brothers united in the Incarnation. Angels, whose main job it is to worship, now worship God on earth after He deigned to be born here. Hence, we see angels visiting little old Bethlehem.

That was all stunning enough, but Dr. Hahn’s conclusion to that chapter really struck a chord within me. He writes:

Where God abides, the angels worship. Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, God abides, and the angels worship. Where there is a marriage bond, there is God—within that family sacramentally—and there the angels gather and worship (96).

Dr. Hahn points out that the Christmas story is really a story about a family, about the family. God became man to redeem mankind through the family, and He is really and truly present in the sacramental marriage. This Christmas, the angels remind us of the tremendous glory hidden in our marriages, this powerful force for good, this divine reality which dwells within our homes and can truly spread joy to the world.

Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer

Christmas Pep Talk from the Saints

Here we are, friends, in the final stretch before Christmas. In a few short days we will open our homes to our family and friends or pack up our own family and journey afar to see relatives.

The last-minute prep falls squarely on our shoulders. We decide who will receive a Christmas card and who won’t, how carefully the presents will be wrapped, and how warm our homes will be for the holiday. Our attitude and care for others will set the tone for how our family will celebrate Christmas. While it seems unfair—the person with the biggest burden can’t possibly be expected to be the best-behaved—it appears that that’s what God had in mind when creating us as the hearts of the home (we can take that up with Him later!). For now, though, a little pep talk from our friends the saints before we delve into our beautiful, albeit laborious, last-minute Christmas prep.

If there is simply too much left to do before Christmas, call on St. Peter Canisius.

Today is the feast of St. Peter Canisius, a sixteenth-century writer and scholar who was tasked with implementing in Germany the decrees of the Council of Trent. He was a tireless worker and is said to have replied to the question if he felt overworked:

If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.

St. Peter Canisius is the patron saint of Germany, so extra points to you if you are German!

When the work is repulsive or painful, talk to Mother Theresa.

Mother Theresa is known for one of her favorite sayings:

You did it to Me.

She constantly reminded the nuns in her order that they were not simply caring for other human beings, but the Lord Himself. The Missionaries of Charity are renown for their tender care of the poorest of the poor, and Mother Theresa frequently invited all of us to do the same. When the work is reviling, like cleaning up someone else’s child’s vomit from between the cracks of an inflatable mattress as a dear friend once did for my child (thank you, Kelsey!) or simply making conversation with a relative who has hurt us, we can ask for Mother Theresa’s prayers to do our jobs with all the love we can muster, certain in our belief that we also do these things for Jesus.

If it seems like just another thing on your to-do list, do it anyway and ask for St. Therese’s intercession.

St. Therese of Lisieux spent her life doing lots of little things with great love. When it would be easier for us to skip the little things because there’s simply so much else to do, we should remember this quote from St. Therese:

Never get tired of doing little things for others. Sometimes, those little things occupy the biggest part of their hearts.

We can do this, ladies! Let’s band together with each other and our friends in heaven to help welcome the Infant Jesus and His children into our hearts and homes with love, warmth, and an abundance of generosity. It’s a difficult call, but an important one and ours. A very merry Christmas to you and yours!

Copyright 2015 Meg Matenaer
Photo by GaborfromHungary (2015) via Morguefile

Preparing Our Children With Prayer

In an effort to guarantee our children’s sanctity and our peace of mind, my husband and I have procured written and verbal agreements from our toddlers about their vocations. One agreed to join the Mystic Monks out in Wyoming and brew coffee for his mom. Another said that she’d love to live in a cloistered Carmelite monastery. And one son enthusiastically signed on to having us as his roommates in college. So, we’re feeling pretty good about our children’s future battles with sin and temptation–we’ve simply eliminated them with a few signatures in green crayon.

If you, however, are having scruples about our method of preparing our children for their future, Pope Saint John Paul II offers an alternative. In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II’s encyclical on the Christian family in the modern world, he writes:

Only by praying together with their children can a father and mother—exercising their royal priesthood—penetrate the innermost depths of their children’s hearts and leave an impression that the future events in their lives will not be able to efface.

Mass, the family rosary, or even a few short, simple prayers of gratitude or intercession for others before bedtime may be far more influential in our children’s lives than we may think. When we get discouraged by things that happen in the family or from contemplating how very difficult living a Christian life might be when our little people are big, we should take John Paul II’s words to heart and keep praying with our children with conviction that it really will bless them as they’re older.

Despite the green crayons (or letting the air of the tires as they get bigger), adversity will undoubtedly find our kids. We can rest knowing that our praying with them now can sow seeds of love deeper than the trouble that might come their way in the future. (And, of course, we can always pray that they choose for themselves what we chose for them when they were two!)

Copyright 2015 Meg Matenaer.
Photo by GaborfromHungary (2010) via Morguefile.

How Purple Is Our Advent?

It can be tempting to use false benchmarks to gauge our season preparedness. Pinterest lures us into not wanting to go another December without a homemade Advent calendar. Facebook tells us that we should be deeply engaged in making all sorts of Advent moments. Our own mom-o-meter indicates that all persons in the house ought to be appropriately patient and well-behaved for the entirety of the month. All three unreasonable measures of the season are sure to result in guilt and sadness at the shambles of our household’s spirituality!

Happily, our Church provides three basic measures for how we can check in on our Christmas preparation:

-prayer

-fasting

-almsgiving

Wait a minute, we think, that sounds like a lot like Lent! And it’s true because Advent, like Lent, is also a “purple time” in the Church. It can be easy to go off the rails a bit in Advent, with the abundance of everything good that we have. With these three guideposts, though, we can easily see what area in our family’s observance of Advent needs some attention. Reminding our kids that it’s still purple time also helps the family connect daily life at home with what’s going on in the liturgy. Father’s purple vestments tie directly into the family fast from Christmas cookies and Mom’s workout videos (a sure sign of this penitential season!)

Even though it’s purple time, however, Advent can still have a different flavor from the purpleness of Lent. Lent is a long, hard struggle against sin, a preparation for Good Friday and Easter. Advent, though, is a preparation for the Infant Jesus, and should be as warm as getting ready for a newborn (lovely, but still difficult, as any 9-month-pregnant woman can attest to!) Simcha Fisher recently wrote about her bishop’s directive to keep the Infant Jesus as the center of Advent preparations.

Two of these disciplines, prayer and almsgiving, are still common to see all around us before Christmas, but fasting is a bit more counter-cultural. Fasting counters the vice of gluttony, overindulgence, a filling-up of the emptiness inside. Our fasting can strengthen our own belief in the dignity of ourselves as children of God. And that special strength can spill over into our interactions with our family and friends, as we then make extra efforts (sometimes heroic efforts!) to fill them up this Advent, doing what we can to sate their thirst for God’s love and to be recognized as His children.

Are we doing Advent right, we might ask ourselves this December. It depends on how purple our hearts and homes are.

Copyright 2015 Meg Matenaer

Photo by mensatic (2015) via Morguefile