Catholic Activity: Why Celebrate the Liturgical Year?
"Did you always do these things?" people ask when they meet a family that celebrates the feasts of the Church year at home. The answer of our family is, "No, we did not always do these things." We are one of the families that "picked them up."
We were a typical American family stirred by an uneasiness it was hard to define. It had to do with the desire to draw closer to the Church and what she was doing as she moved from one season to another, but we didn't know how to explain it. We loved her but we weren't close enough to her, and we couldn't tell why. We thought there were many more ways she could illumine our lives, but we didn't know what they were. Stirred is a good word for it: we were quite stirred up.
Strangely enough, the most important step in the changing of our family life was being stirred up. Afterwards, we learned that the Church prays for it again and again during Advent. If it is a real stirring, inevitably you begin to learn. First of all, because God wants you to learn and has stirred you up in the first place, and secondly because you already possess much of what you want to learn. But you possess it in a kind of disorder, so that you don't realize that you possess it. What we were seeking was a new perspective from which to see the treasure we already possessed, and a way to reassemble it, to put it in order.
Let me explain.
We had the Faith and in it sacramental life. We lived the Christian year (at least, we half-lived it: if you go to church you can't help at least half-living it). We knew much of the doctrine, and we had problems on which to apply it, but there seemed to be a connection missing between the doctrine and the application — as though much of the time we were powerless to see how it applied. We had a number of natural gifts distributed among the lot of us, as all families have — some intelligence, some ingenuity, some imagination — and it seemed that these ought to be used in combination with the other things. Yes, but how?
What we sought was a way to combine all these things harmoniously so that they would make a life for our family which was wholly Christian and in which we would be able to grow in the knowledge and the love of God, together with living in the twentieth century.
To see that the Church lived the year made the difference. To see ourselves as part of the Church, and therefore with a year to live, was the clue. Christ is our life. If we would pattern our life after anything, it should be after His life. But we share His life in the life of the Church. We had the pattern all the time in the daily life of the Mystical Body, and didn't know it.
This is how we started "living the Church year." It began, for us, with an Advent wreath and reading the fine print in the missal; after that, we read everything we could get our hands on that would help us. One by one the seasons of the Christian year began to shape our prayer and our activity, and shed light on how we were to use the doctrine. We were a long time reaching the point where we fell naturally into the practices we now use to celebrate feasts and keep vigils. Because it was new to us, we were awkward, even embarrassed. This is something we meant with all our hearts: one is afraid to be caught posing at something so precious to us. So it entered us slowly, this "Christening" of our life.
We planned things that never quite came off. We planned things that fell through. Sometimes the family didn't respond, or the order of the day was disturbed by some unexpected event and we celebrated not a thing, except perhaps by way of a passing thought that today was to have been so different — if only it had turned out right. But looking back, some of the most valuable lessons are learned with the failures, because this is a way of life we hope will perfect us in doing God's will, not in having our own. Once St. Gertrude complained to Our Lord that He didn't send her the grace to enjoy one of the great feasts as she had hoped to do. He replied that it would have pleased her to enjoy it, but it pleased Him more to have her offer the lack of joy to Him. So sometimes He teaches us best by letting us get nowhere.
Some may protest that this is not really praying with the Church, this making of wreaths, baking of cakes, crowning of kings, dressing of dolls, cutting, pasting, sewing planting; that this is not prayer of any depth and certainly not the liturgy of the Church. No, but for people who are learning what the liturgy is, and how to follow the prayer of the Church who are making their first attempts really to pray it, this is the way to learn. We learn to swim in the shallow water before we are able to swim in the deep. These delightful things to see and touch and smell and taste and hear and make and do are by far the best tools there are to teach of the beauty and power of God, and the richness of life in Christ. We provide the natural settings, teach the words, give the ideas, draw the analogies, read the stories, sing the songs, tell the tales, warm all this with our love — and God makes the increase. We are not trying to do His part of the job, only our own — which is to prepare the hearts and minds of our families so that they will respond to Him. If they love the approaches to the knowledge of His love and grace, they will be more easily led to the fountains of love and grace.
This book tells of the year and its seasons, their spirits, some of the background and stories that go with them, and things to make and do to celebrate them. Some of the customs are borrowed from beautiful European customs that have so enriched American family life. Some we have made up ourselves because they seemed the best way to communicate certain ideas and joys to an American family. We have used them all; so we know that they are practical. The stories have been written so that they may be read aloud from the book, or retold, if that is your way. We hope everything it contains will be useful and will serve as a springboard for families who, trying out our ideas, will change them here or there, embellish them, give them their family's personality and flavor, and make their own lasting Christian customs. It is not the customs that are universal, but the liturgy.
From householders there will be the question of cost of materials and the convenience (or inconvenience) of storing them. The materials need never be costly. Most of what does not come from the pantry cupboard, the workbench, the rag-bag, the "good junk" all families accumulate, may be purchased at the Five-and-Ten. More expensive materials are excellent gift suggestions for aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents, friends who want to know what to buy a child for his birthday, feast day, Christmas, or Easter. If you have the custom of bringing some sweets home after a shopping trip, as a treat for the family, why not substitute a creative kind of gift — something to add to the family art supplies? The joy to be had from these lasts longer, and it's better for their teeth! The one expenditure necessary for families who would grow in the love and knowledge of the Church is — books. These sometimes seem to be entirely out of reach, until we reassess our values and compare how much we spend to feed the bodies, which will one day be dust, and how little to feed the minds, which will live forever. It is worth sacrificing to buy books.
Space is the problem of families in small living quarters. This is one of the reasons television has proven such a successful minder of children. It takes so little room and is never messy — in the tangible way. Creative projects are often messy. Putting up with this is difficult or not, according to how we weigh the value of creative experiences for our children. A certain amount of common sense must operate here, however. It is always best to plan ahead the time and space for the more elaborate projects, not letting ourselves be teased into permitting a soap-carving session a half-hour before company arrives. Good activities for restricted space, for company times, for especially busy housework days, are the reading aloud (among children), telling stories (mothers can do this as they work after they have mastered enough stories), talking about, thinking-game, drawing-with-crayons kind of things. If you are frantic for space and can persuade your landlord to permit it, you might paint one wall of the children's bedroom with blackboard paint (black or green) with the promise that you will paint it an orthodox color before you move. It will keep many children busy for hours at a time and is an ideal way to work out many lessons, stories, teaching sessions. There is chalk dust, of course — but we can't have everything!
The more cluttery projects give greater play to the imagination, and the exploring and adventure of rich sessions with some great feast and the desire to illustrate it, demonstrate it, describe it in symbols, whatever — is a never-ending journey that leads all the way to eternity. Always conduct these projects (if they are carried out on flat surfaces) on opened newspapers, and the cleaning-up operation is cut to a minimum.
Storing things could be a problem for some. An excellent folio for keeping paper and drawings flat and clean is a paper garment bag cut in two and slid under a bed. Put new paper in one; store drawings in the other. Mayonnaise jars with screw tops keep odd trinkets, jewels, buttons, all the "junk" supplies, in assortments out of reach of small hands but in sight on a bit of shelf space. Can someone bear to give up a bureau drawer and go halves with someone else? The family art and make-and-do supplies can go in there. An old suitcase rarely used but needing storage keeps our ribbon and yarn supplies dean and safe and always handy for puppet-making and gift-wrapping. Patterns for cut-outs, stencils, flat designs needed from time to time are kept in a flat manila envelope taped to the wall. An old orange crate is a file; in addition to correspondence, we keep clippings, pictures, material of all kinds that will be useful for either home or school projects. One of the nicest Christmas gifts we ever received was a deep tray holding emptied prescription bottles (the little green ones with black screw tops) containing paper clips, spread-apart paper fasteners, reinforcements, odd stationery supplies, a punch, box of crayons, colored paper pads, and so forth — all from the Five-and-Ten. All were vitally important to a family that "makes." (Do put a stapler in someone's stocking next Christmas — very important to a "maker.")
There is also the question of time. Where do you find the time? Like these other questions, the answer is, we can find it if we plan for it. We can find it quite easily by looking to see where we waste it. Not wasting it is not easy, because the habits of time-wasting, although they are harmless, are hard to break — as I know from experience. Mothers (and planning the day so as to find the time is theirs) have this struggle all to themselves. It involves such things as the radio habit, coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, long telephone conversations, chatting with neighbors, a heavy involvement in outside activities. Somewhere most American women can "find time" to devote to the enriching of their families' spiritual life. The joyous discovery is that once we have struggled and found the time, tasted and seen how sweet are these pursuits together, we begin to gauge all our doings so that there will be time — because we are convinced there must be.
Last of all — personalities. Suppose your family includes some who aren't the procession-type, who don't enjoy doing anything unconventional, who are too much overcome with self-consciousness to take part in any new or different kind of family prayer, feasting, celebration. What then? Then you use your head, and your tact, and your love — and you never force the issue. Perhaps all you can give to such a one is a crumb of interesting information passed along in dinner-table conversation, or the children's amusing report of what they celebrated at their party, or answer questions about the things they have created to help with the celebration of a feast. Adolescents, teen-agers, husbands, sometimes wives, relatives living-in — it is possible they fail to share the enthusiasm of younger children and mothers. All right. If these customs do not enhance faith and prayer for such ones, it is certainly not good to force their use and precipitate tension. If we are living the year with the Church with the proper love and eagerness to learn of Christ, one of the increases should be in our own patience and understanding, respect for each other as individuals, caution in judgments. We can always pray.
One of the gravest problems of our day is the problem of working mothers. Some mothers must work, but not all. Those who are not obliged to are often driven to by compulsions that appear to be defensive. Is it not possible that one of the reasons they leave their homes is because, aside from daily chores, there seems nothing to do there? No excitement, no adventure, no thrill. Nothing but the drudgery of housework (as it has been called); and no suggestion is given about how to use this except to "offer it up." If only these mothers would discover that they have left their real fortune behind them, when they leave their homes daily to make it. Their life with their families offers infinite variety and opportunity for adventure, riches they have never yet examined, challenges to their minds and their bodies and their hearts — in the living out of one day after another with their Mother, the Church.
For the families who begin to suspect that they have let their lives get too complicated with worldly cares, too much involved in secular values, too materialistic, living through the year with the Church is the stabilizer, the way to keep to first things first.
And for the families who conceal behind their front doors some hardship or cross, whether a suffering shared or inflicted or borne, the tempo of life in Christ as He leads the Church at prayer through the year is calming, enriching; it brings wisdom, sheds light, gives courage.
The families who have discovered the joys of living the year with the Church would be the first to say so — to the families who, we pray, will discover them.
Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956