Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Saint of No Excuses

The other day I broke down and called the washer repairman. We'd been ignoring the rattling of the washer for a long time, and though we kept adjusting the feet they kept unadjusting. It was shaking so badly that one of the daily assigned chores was for someone to sit on the washer as it went through the rinse and spin cycles. The shaking got gradually worse, until one of the feet started coming off because the threads of the screw were getting stripped.

The washer repairman worked on the thing and came out shaking his head. "It's not good to let the feet get worked out like that," he said. "You need to keep the loads balanced and not overfill it. When it starts shaking like that, it makes itself worse and worse because of how heavy the machine is."

Well, thanks for telling me that! Darwin and I had just been wrestling with the feet the night before and had been unable to get them back in. The repairman had gone at them with a pair of pliers to screw them back in and realign them. So I paid $80 to hear something I already knew. But that's the point: I already knew I shouldn't be overfilling the washer in the first place. I knew the shaking wasn't good, and I took a year to call anyone about it. We knew it was bad for the feet, and every now and then we'd give them a cursory adjustment, but we kept ignoring the problem in hopes it would just work itself out. The repairman didn't make this stuff up to make me feel bad or to accuse me. He was telling me what I already knew. The fact that I have six kids, including a baby, and mountains of laundry to work through each week, and that I'm tired and want to get through the clothes in as few loads as possible doesn't actually change the nature of the washing machine and what it can handle. That's not the universe thumbing its nose at me. It's just reality.

The other day was St. Josemaria Escriva's feast day, and several acquaintances were reflecting on how they really disliked the saint, finding his advice unhelpfully condemnatory or elitist or patronizing. This particular quote gave rise to a long discussion of how St. Escriva was placing heavy and unreasonable burden on women:

4. What would you advise married women to do to ensure that their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to boredom? This question may not seem very important, but it is one asked by many people.
“I think it is in fact an important question and therefore the possible solutions are also important even though they may seem very obvious. If a marriage is to preserve its initial charm and beauty, both husband and wife should try to renew their love day after day, and that is done through sacrifice, with smiles and also with ingenuity. Is it surprising that a husband who arrives home tired from work begins to lose patience when his wife keeps on and on about everything she thinks has gone wrong during the day? Disagreeable things can wait for a better moment when the husband is less tired and more disposed to listen to them.

Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’

That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty per cent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children, as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.

There is no excuse for not fulfilling this lovable duty. Work outside the home is not an excuse. Not even one’s life of piety can be an excuse, because if it is incompatible with one’s daily obligations, it is not good, nor pleasing to God. A married woman’s first concern has to be her home. There is a Spanish saying which goes: ‘If through going to church to pray a woman burns the stew, she may be half an angel, but she’s half a devil too.’ I’d say she was a fully-fledged devil.”
(Conversations with Saint Josemaria Escriva, 107)

I read this, and as with so many of St. Escriva's writings, I think: he is talking directly to ME. People can (and did) argue over the saint's unscientific 80% assessment, but I understand completely what he is saying, because sloth is a great failing of mine, and I know personally how easy it can be to just let it go because I'm so frustrated at the work needed to keep myself in good repair. This isn't for everyone, obviously -- note well the caveat that "naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances" -- but in my own experience, he's right! My own older facade does need more restoration, and frustration and fury ensue when I don't take into account that I'm 35, not 22, and that my body doesn't respond as easily and quickly to what used to work. This isn't to say that I ought to look like I'm 22, but that I shouldn't be discouraged and disgusted if the low-effort, fairly painless fitness routine that worked for a 22-year-old doesn't have the same effects on a 35-year-old, grand multipara body. That's not the saint trying to make me feel bad or accuse me, and it's not the universe thumbing its nose at me; it's just reality.

I'm a step down from Escriva's advicee; I don't neglect myself because I'm striving for some form of holiness. I do it out of pique. Am I responsible for every thought of my husband's? Of course not, and with St. Escriva's emphasis on personal responsibility, I don't think that's what he's saying. But my husband isn't some random guy off the street assessing me. He's someone I love and have given myself to, including my body and my appearance. He actually thinks I'm beautiful when I don't, and I want to be very careful in how I respond to that, because although I find it frustrating sometimes when our perceptions don't line up, I have to ask myself: do I really want him to stop finding me beautiful? I want to feel like it doesn't matter, but do I really want him to feel like it doesn't matter? He's responsible for his own thoughts, but it's not really consistent with my saying that I love him so much for me to make his path harder, to put up obstacles and make him prove the love I don't even doubt, because I can't be bothered.

As I say, this is for ME. Other saints speak more directly to other people. (I personally can't get anything from St. Padre Pio's spirituality, though he seems to have great wisdom and comfort for many others, and since he's canonized I accept that and move on.) There are saints for all temperaments. St. Escriva is the saint for me: a saint for the psychologically healthy, a goad to the one who knows what she ought to do but doesn't do it, a saint who doesn't put up with my personal laziness or sloth, a saint who challenges me to rise beyond my cradle Catholicism and my basic "good person" mindset, a saint who expects more from the one who has been given more. He's the saint of no excuses from people who have no excuses. And whether or not anyone else in the world fits that description and needs that kick in the pants, I do. I'm more blessed than anyone else in the world: I have my own personal saint.

The church is a big tent. Thank God we have mild saints and vinegary saints and patient saints and acetic saints and saints who know when to give leeway and saints who know when not to.  Thank God that everyone is not a carbon copy of me, because what a dull and impoverished church that would be. Thank God that he cleanses the filth from the temple but does not quench a smoldering wick. And thank God for St. Escriva, whose mission is to kick me out of my complacency and smack me right into heaven.


Layla said...

Yes. Exactly this. Thanks for articulating precisely what I thought when I read the same discussions on Thursday.

bearing said...

Perhaps the problem with Escriva is not in the reading, but in recommending and quoting him to others. Unless we are a spiritual director, we are more likely to be called to convict ourselves than to issue conviction to others. Escriva may be like the discipline: for *self* flagellation only.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I know almost nothing about St. Escriva, but in the past year I've absorbing a lot of his thought because I've been reading "In Coversation with God" every day, and its author quotes him copiously. And now that I look at the back flap of the dust jacket, I notice that he is a priest of Opus Dei. "In Conversation with God," and by extenstion St Escriva, have helped me a lot this past year because I too struggle with sloth, particularly since entering widowhood. In a period of my life when nothing really seems to matter, it helps me to be reminded of the spiritual dimension of just doing what is close to hand.

Kelly said...

Ironically, this passage was discussed at the recollection that you didn't make it to, Cat!

I think we have this mistaken idea that saints have infallibility. To me, what St. Josemaria wrote there is typical for that time period in marriage advice. Now we know that infidelity is often a symptom of an underlying problem in the marriage but some people just seem to be incapable of fidelity. And in America today, women are far more likely to file for divorce (which is a separate issue from infidelity, I suppose) so the advice might be better applied to men because women aren't shy about ending the marriage if they feel unhappy.

At the same time, I have sometimes run across Catholic couples that seemed to feel that because they are Catholic and married forever then they don't have to do anything for the marriage or show consideration for their partner. Personal care, making time for intimacy, making time just for conversation, none of that is important because they don't have to worry about divorce being a consequence. This advice might be good for them, but they're a minority of couples as far as I can tell.

bearing said...

Yes, there are also people who believe presenting themselves attractively = vanity or immodesty and so they may need a corrective.

BettyDuffy said...

I like this post.

Son Mom said...

I think St. Escriva is often helpful for those of us who struggle with sloth :) My father was a very laid-back, good-natured person, read "Conversations With God" daily, and had a confessor who was a member of Opus Dei, though he was never interested in joining Opus Dei himself -- that style of spirituality was very beneficial for him. For my mom, who has had lifelong struggles with scrupulosity, the writings of St. Escriva are most definitely not helpful, and might very well be harmful to her spiritual life. I take after my dad, and often I need a little stern encouragement to be more disciplined - there is very little danger I will start being too harsh with myself.

I have many areas of my life that are just like your washing machine issue!

mrsdarwin said...

Son Mom, it sounds like we have a lot in common. Sloth is one that I fight all the time, and scrupulosity has little pull on me. Hence, St. Escriva really has a lot to say to me in that regard.

A few years ago there was a book about Catholic unschooling that was floating around and getting a lot of positive reviews from mothers who tended to be too regimented. I didn't enjoy it or find it helpful because I don't need any more help being lenient or loose with my educational routine. I need something that encourages me to tighten things up and not slack off a bit. But that wasn't the fault of the authors. It just wasn't what I needed to hear. And so it is with St. Escriva, I think.

Finicky Cat said...

I'm a week behind in my reading, but just had to stop and say THANKS for this one! Good post, good comments. I wonder, is it possible to be both slothful and scrupulous? Or is that just proof of my scrupulosity? Heh.