Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Worldly Goods

A reader mentioned the charms of secular stuff in the combox, which naturally made me wonder what they could be. Although himself rumoured to live mostly on tinned soup, my chaplain extols the good things of the world--like wine and fine paintings.

Our Lord made wine and fine paintings can be found in churches, so I ask myself if I should consider these among the charms of the secular world. Indeed the word "secular" is itself problematic, as there are "secular" priests--meaning that they live in the world, not in a religious order, and especially not in a monastery. Therefore, one might argue that "secularity" belongs to those class of good you would not find in a monastery.

Now I have never lived in a monastery as a nun, but I have visited the Benedictine Sisters of Cecilia at Ryde, so I can take an educated guess as to what I would have to give up, should my husband "put me aside" to become Abbot of Monte Cassino, or something equally unlikely.  Among them are things I consider "secular" and my favourite good things of the world.

1. Excellent Coffee

The greatest privation of living as a guest in a monastic institution that I have experienced so far is having to drink instant coffee at breakfast. I used to enjoy instant coffee for its evocation of past visits to Poland, but now I am, like, "Seriously, this is just brown water. Gdzie jest naj-closest café?"

2. Sitting in a Café with Excellent Coffee

Have you ever dreamed of living in a cosmopolitan European city and dropping into the local snazzy café to read interesting books in obscure languages as around you students and intellectuals chat and drink macchiatos? Yes, it is as cool as it sounds, although lately in Edinburgh the students sit across from each other staring at their laptops or smartphones.

 I used to frequent a snazzy café in homely old Hamilton, Ontario in the days before smartphones, and that was good, too. I drank cappuccino, exchanged greetings with fellow writers-and-artists, wrote bad poetry and bobbed my head along to Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag".

3. Rock

When I was twelve, I read in Seventeen magazine that Christian pastors routinely condemned rock-and-roll as the devil's music. I was very excited when one of our parish priests finally did.

I think, however, he was taking a pop at heavy metal, which I didn't like then anyway. From the moment I was permitted my own radio, I remained glued to Top 40 until  I started dating a metalhead. I changed the dial to the Almighty Q, and there it remained until we broke up, I became a part-time Goth, moved downtown and spent my very small resources on one glass of plonk a week at the ironically-named Vampire Sex Bar. I have had a soft spot for Gothica ever since.

Despite some tolerance for Praise & Worship music--I am, after all, a woman--I agree that there is no place for rock-and-roll in the sanctuaries of the Church. My kitchen is a different story, I do not think I would have the strength to cope with the dishes the morning after a dinner party without The Killers' Hot Fuss.

4. Dance Clubs

I almost never go to dance clubs, and when I do they are almost always staggeringly boring. That said, some nights they are magical and give me a lot of writing ideas. OMG! I am SO going to a dance club in Warsaw.

But by myself....?

Okay, maybe I am not going to a dance club in Warsaw. If I were ten years younger I would definitely go to a dance club in Warsaw by myself. Ten years ago, I went to Goth bars in Boston by myself.  In Frankfurt I went with a German school classmate. And put the club in my Red Baron in Valhalla novel.

I really want to go to a dance club in Warsaw now.

I am definitely too old, though.


5. Travel

Almost everyone loves travel. It is not, however, the sort of thing monastics indulge in. Roaming the earth, gawping at sights, listening to foreign chatter, tasting new tastes, feeling new weather, buying things to get through the boring bits... It's very worldly indeed.

I have four kinds of travel: homecoming, work, recreational  and adventure.

Homecoming travel means going home to Toronto or to visit my brother and his family in Quebec. This is the most relaxing kind because I don't have to do anything except occasionally wash the dishes. Everyone loves me. I love everyone. I leave before the novelty of having me home wears thin.

Work travel means going as a speaker to some venue where I am shepherded around like a prize lamb and prevented from getting lost, falling downstairs, etc.

Recreational travel means going places, foreign and domestic, with Benedict Ambrose. This is more strenuous, mostly because of (A) leadership issues and (B) I have to perform the more complicated communications and (C) I feel like an ass when I fail at these complicated communications.

Adventure travel means having to depend on myself in highly foreign circumstances. Work travel often has adventure travel elements. My two greatest enemies in adventure travel are taxi drivers and boredom. My suspicion of taxi drivers borders on paranoia, and the boredom has much to do with the lack of television in monastic guest houses. Going to the theatre in Krakow despite DARK and BEING ALONE was a revolutionary act. Unfortunately, by the third dramatic act, I was thinking, "Die, Romeo and Juliet, die!"

Er, I think I have forgotten why travel is one of my favourite worldly goods, other than when it takes me to family and friends. Oh, I like being able to communicate in foreign languages. When it works, it is a thrill.

6. Modern European Languages

Well, English, Italian, Polish and German. Modern English, however, is by its very post-King-James-Bible nature a Protestant language, an opinion that makes ex-Anglican converts to Roman Catholicism grumble and frown. One might argue that Standard Modern German is also Protestant, although not in Bavaria or Austria, I imagine.

At any rate, I do enjoy language classes, and my language club, and reading about becoming better at learning languages.

7. Worldy Books

Currently I am reading a wonderful book by John Carey, an atheist (or agnostic) retired Oxford professor of English Literature. It is called The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life, and it is delightfully readable. I wish I had read it before Brideshead Revisited, but this, alas, would have been impossible, as I first read BR as a child, and The Unexpected Professor was published in 2014.

Julia asked an excellent question on the advisability of keeping pre-1950 books away from impressionable children. I think it would be wrong to do so, but I think it would be helpful for the parent to keep track of what his or her child is reading and to discuss ways in which the world has changed since the book was written, or how the structures of fiction are markedly different from teh structures of real life.

One might also try to get at the heart of what the child likes so much about an influential book. I very much like Georgette Heyer's Cotillion because the heroine exchanges her boring clothes for exciting finery and jewellery she doesn't have to do anything onerous to get. Also I am a little bit in love with Freddy, who is basically just Bertie Wooster with sex appeal instead of Jeeves.

I liked Brideshead Revisited so much because Charles and Sebastian thought they were all that and a bag of chips, and I wanted to be like them. As [SPOILER ALERT] Charles ends up a mediocre painter and Sebastian a balding dipsomaniac, I must have been mad---or eleven years old. However, I didn't realize the real harm Brideshead Revisited does to young people (not just me)  until I got to Britain.

I really like The Unexpected Professor because it is entirely against such mindless snobbery and the author worked so hard to get to Oxford he innocently took benzedrine. The truth is a lot of soi-disant "Catholic literature"--or literature written by Catholics--can be really bad for you, which is a frightening thought for a Catholic author. Nevertheless, literature is one of my favourite worldly goods.

8. Worldly Conversations

For me blogging is a form of frivol, which is why I don't blog all that much on What-Is-Francis-Saying-NOW-It-Is-The-End-of-The-WORLD. I was brought up not to get too excited about popes, and when I married I shared my husband's devoting Pope Benedict, and then Pope Benedict broke both our hearts by abdicating, so now I have returned to the family lack-of-interest-in-popes which, if you think about it, is so traditional as to be pre-Napoleonic, until you live in a (former) papal state. If I write about Important Church Stuff like Francis, I expect to be paid for it. I am, after all, still paying off my M.Div.-era student debt.

Meanwhile, I am not that good at pious chat. St. Theresa the Little Flower could do it and make men weep, and a gazillion bloggers attempt it and make women hurl. My heroine St. Teresa Benedetta a Cruce's (Edith Stein's) most profoundly pious statements were short. The first--about the Life of St. Teresa of Avila--was "This is truth." The last--upon being arrested by the Gestapo  was--"Come, Rosa, let us die for our people." I'll never top that.

This leaves worldly conversation, of which talking about Single issues is a subset, for if we were all unworldly, we would all go into convents at 18. I can make worldly conversation in two languages now. I highly enjoyed myself arguing in Polish that Brigitte Bardot certainly wrote Adam Buczynski a mash note, and discussing how old she must have been at the time.

Well, what are your favourite worldly goods?


  1. Heh, about secularity. When I wrote my dissertation I learned to use the word 'temporal' to describe the things I might otherwise have called 'secular' in order to avoid ambiguity.

    What are my favorite temporal goods? In no particular order, here are a few:

    1) Comfortable, well-made clothes, casual or formal, that make their wearers (anyone, not just me) look good while feeling good.

    2) Unobtrusive cosmetics that make women feel easier about their appearance, when they would otherwise look tired and haggard. Of course, there's nothing *wrong* with looking or being tired and haggard, but it is nice to face the world with a little camouflage. Men, with their (literally) thicker skins, do not need such interventions.

    3) A glass of champagne. Enough said.

    4) Sitting in a classroom as a student, not a teacher. Some of my happiest moments have been attending classes where a good lecturer was speaking. I would love to take an intensive 4th year course in Shakespeare or Milton, especially if I could do so with a sympathetic friend.

    5) Warm, waterproof boots that look good on (and repel salt stains), whatever else you're wearing. A Canadian essential.

    6) Clean, well-kept public 'washrooms' as we say here. Otherwise loos, lavs, WCs, or toilets. (English people think, or used to think, that the word 'toilet' is a hilarious American euphemism for 'loo', while in fact on this side of the Atlantic we find it a crassly explicit term. Classic Anglo-American misunderstanding.)

    7) Really beautiful clean hotel rooms, whether simple or luxurious. Haven't stayed in many I could describe that way, but the sense of peace that comes over me when I know I don't have to clean anything, or feel horrified by the lack of cleanliness (always a problem for me) is wonderful.

    8) Waking up in a different country after a long flight. Joy, mystery, remembering that all life is mysterious and beautiful descend upon one at such a moment.

    Alias Clio

  2. I am glad you mention clothes. I love the look and feel of well-made clothes, but I was able to afford them only once in my life and then felt the money ought to be saved for something else.

    So, so true about the boots. And hotels and beautiful loos. Some British do indeed say "the toilets", however, and I have to disguise my North American embarrassment, lest I seem snobbish. (The English I know think the American euphemism of "bathroom" for public conveniences absolutely hilarious.) UGH. I find all class indicator stuff extremely painful and live in fear I will remind someone--anyone--of Hyacinth Bucket, a fictional character hated more than Hitler.

  3. I think Hyacinth is totes adorbs! I want all of her hats, gloves, and candlelit suppers. Sad if any English do not cherish. The fact I own a kettle, instead of boiling water in a pot, basically makes me her anyway. I grew up in Coors Lite country, and yet I drink tea and fancy microbrews, wear skirts instead of jeans to Mass, and have never even shot at the highway signs. Much social, so climb!

    My worldly faves at the moment are tea, coffee and computers with video streaming & video chat. Also novels of the punch-kick-and-shoot the bad guys persuasion.

    1. Haha! Sciencegirl, you make me laugh. Shooting at highway signs...

      I'm in Oklahoma, so I know what you mean.

    2. As one of my favourite theology professors once said, "I admire your freedom." I just found out that British people who identify as "working class" dont' have dinner parties. I really had no idea that even the humble dinner party was a blinking "class" indicator.

    3. Do they have them, except they are called something else, and the guests bring food to share (like "potluck" or "BBQ")? Do friends and neighbors drop by for dinner, but it's not considered a "party?" Lunches? Picnics? This is weird to me because the working class families I know do so many interactions over food in the home. Cheaper than restaurants, and often tastier!

  4. Swing dancing.
    Ice cream.
    Vintage clothes.
    Going out for ice cream after an evening of swing dancing in vintage clothes.
    And opera of course.

    1. Oh brilliant! I am so glad you enjoy swing-dancing so much. For me it really depends on the people around. What are your favourite vintage clothing websites?

  5. Easy access to good coffee
    The Internet - I do all my shopping this way now as dragging a 3 year old and a non-walking 20 month old to the shops is no fun for anyone
    Access to beautiful music via recordings
    The Outlander series of books - my guilty pleasure of late

    Aussie girl in NZ

    1. What kind of music do you listen to most? I feel like a musical illiterate next to B.A., especially as I most often use it as a means to an end.

  6. Ooh! I think I was the commenter who mentioned secularism. I was thinking of the perils of a secular worldview, but there are many secular-temporal delights like the ones you mention!
    I'll have to agree strongly with coffee in cafes. Possibly one of my favourite things ever. Drinking coffees in cafes while I do my work is getting me through grad school.
    And: beautiful public libraries, shopping (so terrible and yet so fun), MUSIC (all kinds -- but I am not fond of ye olde P&W, I must say), novels, good poetry, silly board games...

    1. When last I lived in Toronto, the P&W band at the Newman Centre was really very good. I have heard some of the same songs sung in Europe as if they were dirges. How B.A. suffered.

      What IS it about coffee in cafés? Why are they so great? You would think that I would just be satisfied with working in a pretty room at home (and at a fraction of the cost), but no. To Brew Lab I must go.

  7. My temporal goods...

    My cats, and no I'm not cat lady. My Siamese was lonely so he got a friend. I'd have a serious time giving up my pets.

    Streaming video- I like binge watching shows.

    Reading whatever I want to whenever.

    Exploring the mountains

    Rock music

    1. Oh I love Siamese cats in particular! They are so smart. Violent, of course. But beautiful and smart.

      Would you go to a dance club in Warsaw by yourself? Maybe I will put out a poll.

    2. I have always wanted to decorate a room in Siamese cat colours.

      Alias Clio

    3. Siamese tend to be very loyal to their people, but don't like outsiders. Mine curls up in my lap each night while I watch tv. I am saved from his genius because he doesn't have opposable thumbs.

      I wouldn't go to a dance club alone, but I'm very petite. Dance clubs aren't my thing unless it's swing dancing. I would go to that alone, along with coffee shops, etc.

  8. Hot tea with honey, pickled plum onigiri, sushi, anime, good quality yarn, aspirin, working plumbing, e-books, used books, new books, library books, manga, socks, toothpaste, shampoo, rose scented soap, almond scented hand lotion, Lolita fashion (out of my price range, but I love looking at it), electric lights, alcohol, cross stitching, fountain pens, and a very special home-away-from-home which puts one into the mind of the Inklings.

    1. You built an underground hobbit house?!??! (Please say yes!)

  9. 1) Japanese foods such as Japanese teas (sencha, macha etc), especially with a small Japanese sweet. Travelling to Japan and feeling "foreign". Japanese commercials (some YouTube channels sprcialize in this).

    2) Travelling to hot and humid countries.

    3) Painting, drawing, colouring, decorating birthday cards. Home design and decorating my home with flowers and plants.

    3) A warm bath, especially when I have a cold or during my less energetic time of the month.

    4) Dressing up. Making up. Wearing beautiful clothes.

    5) Dreaming about and planning the future. Imagining my future dream home while looking through the houses for Wales paper(I have enjoyed this since I was little). Looking at sets of plates and porcelain goods.