Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections: Too Little Seen As Too Much

Some weeks back, in the course of a discussion about my favorite modern religious philosopher, Simone Weil, Pentimento suggested to me that since I liked Weil, I would probably also appreciate the writings of Caryll Houselander. I seldom ignore book recommendations from persons for whom I have great respect, so I put the name of Houselander at the top of my “to read” list.

This past week I was able to have Houselander’s Marian contemplation, The Reed of God, delivered from the Annex facility of the library in which I work to the main campus, so that I could bring it home and read it. I began to do that this morning. Here, from the Houselander’s Introduction, is an excerpt that immediately caught my attention:

How dear to us St. Catherine of Sienna is, because she loved her garden, because she made up little verses and gilded tiny oranges to humor a difficult Pope. How close she comes to us in her friendships: in the motley company of poets, politicians, soldiers, priests, and brigands; men who idolized her; and not only men, for St. Catherine was not only the most dynamic woman in history but also the best friend to other women that ever lived. Such things almost make us forget that she was fiercely ascetic, that for years she was fed only on the Blessed Sacrament, and that she was an ecstatic: her agony for the world’s sin is hidden under the beautiful cloak of her love for sinners.

“…she was fiercely ascetic…” yet she befriended all kinds of worldly men. Fiercely ascetic, yet she functioned in the world with her sacrifices “hidden under [a] beautiful cloak of love… ” This is a mode of existence for which I have boundless respect.

After a youth and early maturity of hedonistic excess, I have found a certain amount of comfort in the practice of a kind of mild asceticism. I no longer eat for pleasure or entertainment, for instance, but only for nutrition. And I find that in eating a minimal amount of very plain but nutritious food I enjoy my meals much more than I did when what I was consuming was smothered in rich sauces and dripping with fat in its over-abundance. I rise at 4 AM on most days, in order to have quiet time to read and write, or just to think, or pray. I will not provide an extensive catalog of such behaviors here. I cite these few examples only because I have found that people seem to resent such behavior if I happen to mention it. It seems to anger them, as though the way I choose to live is somehow a condemnation of their own lifestyle choices.

It may be that St. Catherine of Sienna had good reasons, other than just not blowing her own horn, to play her ascesis close to the vest.