Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mass as it must have been in the beginning

My friend Bill (aka Msgr. William Benwell, vicar general of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.) was up for a visit and asked if he could celebrate Mass at our house. I was only too happy to oblige. While he's celebrated Mass at a vacation rental for us in North Wildwood, N.J., we've yet to have Mass in our own home.

As we were sitting and praying together, gathered so close to the altar, I couldn't help but imagine how our experience must have been very similar to what it was like to worship together in the early days of Christianity, when disciples gathered in homes to share a meal and celebrate their new faith.

So here are some shots of our home-grown liturgy. That's our living room coffee table altar above.

Celebrant and congregation.

An interactive homily on St. Martha, whose feast day we were celebrating.

Noah was the lector. Olivia and Chiara were altar servers. A first for Chiara. And I was minister of the cup, another first.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Foodie Friday: The start of something delicious

If you've been reading Not Strictly Spiritual with any regularity, you know when I veer off the spiritual posting path, it's often to talk about food -- food I'm making, food I'm eating, food I'm craving. You get the idea.

So, today I'm launching my new weekly food-focused post: Foodie Friday. Every Friday I'll write about food. Some weeks it will be a recipe, some weeks a review, some weeks a picture. This doesn't mean I can't blog about food other days of the week, just that I'm committing to blog about food at least one day a week. This week you'll get all three -- recipe, review and photo. What a deal.

I thought today was the perfect day to launch Foodie Friday since it's the feast of St. Martha (Look at that! It's about spirituality AND food. It just gets better and better.) You remember St. Martha. She's the one who gets a bad rap for cooking and cleaning and serving dinner while her layabout sister, Mary, sat at Jesus' feet and just listened. Okay, maybe that's not quite scripturally accurate, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I may be a Mary in name, but I am absolutely a Martha in spirit.

Today I wanted to tell you about my foray into a basic Italian food that is so simple and yet so overlooked: polenta. It's peasant food, really, but as with so much good, cheap peasant food (see last week's zucchini blossom post), our society manages to remake its image and charge way too much for it. But you can make delicious polenta at home for very little money, especially if you buy it in bulk at a health store like the Honest Weight Food Co-op (for Capital Region folks).

Here's how I made my polenta. It's a recipe I adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, my food guru. I changed it up a bit and served it topped with broccoli rabe that I blanched briefly and then sauteed in olive oil with sliced garlic, which is how I cook almost all of our vegetables. (What can I say, I'm Italian and my kids fight over who gets the garlic slices.)

Creamy Polenta with Garlic and Cheese

1/2 cup milk, preferably whole, although I used skim with a splash of half and half
2 cups water
1 cup coarse cornmeal
I tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 spring fresh rosemary chopped, or a teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 teaspoon of chopped garlic
1 tablespoon of butter
Grated Parmesan cheese

Combine milk and water with large pinch of salt in a saucepan over medium heat. When it's close to a boil, add the polenta in a steady stream, whisking the whole time to keep away the nasty lumps. Add the rosemary.

Turn the heat down to a simmer and keep whisking until the polenta gets thick -- about 10 or 15 minutes. If it starts to look too thick too soon, add a little water. (I did this. I was fine.)

Add the butter, cheese, garlic and stir. Grind some pepper into it to taste. Serve immediately as a side dish or main course. I doubled this recipe for my hungry family and used it as a side dish with baked salmon and sauteed broccoli rabe.

Variation: You can make grilled or fried polenta by decreasing the amount of water and making a thicker mixture. Don't add the butter, cheese. I'd probably skip the garlic and rosemary as well for this version. When it's done, spread the polenta on a board and let it cool for a while. Then cut it into slices -- about 1/2 inch thick. Now you can brush the slices with olive oil, salt and pepper and throw them on the grill or into a frying pan.

Mini Restaurant Review of the Week: Swifty's in Delmar

replaced Beff's in Delmar a while back. While we'd been to Beff's with some regularity, we hadn't ventured into Swifty's until last weekend. After church at historic St. Mary's in Albany, we tried to find a lunch spot downtown. No luck. Albany is like a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. So we headed back to Delmar and into Swifty's. We got there around 1 p.m. when a small lunch crowd was starting to arrive. Very small.

First we asked about what beers were on tap (since this is a pub). We were told that no beers were on tap, as the beer was warm and they didn't want to serve warm beer. Well, I applaud them for not wanting to serve warm beer, but, really, NO cold beer on tap in a bar at the start of a lunch hour. Then the waitress didn't even bother to tell us about any good bottled beers we might want to try instead. So we drank water, which was better for us anyway. (Another beer-related pet peeve: They didn't separate out local or regional beers on the blackboards, so if you're from out of town, you might have no idea that Ommegang is Belgian beer made nearby.)

I ordered the fish and chips, as did Dennis. Noah got the cowboy burger. Chiara got the chicken fingers and fries. (Olivia was weekending in the Cape. Excuse me.) So...the fish and chips tasted good at first, but with every oil-soaked bite my stomach began to feel more and more like I was eating lead. At one point when the waitress came over to check on us, both Dennis and I had pieces of fish in napkins, trying blot up some of the grease that was, quite literally, dripping from the fish and from our hands. Not good.

I love a good side dish of coleslaw, but I took one bite of this and warned everyone else off. I thought it might be bad. Perhaps the mayo had suffered the same fate as the beer. Noah's burger -- stacked with onion rings and bacon, yow -- was good, but he said his mac salad tasted weird. I think the only one who didn't complain about the meal was Chiara. Then again, she ate only three or four bites, so that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Bottom line: We have no plans to return to Swifty's, even if they decide to chill the beer. Too many other better options.

Okay, that's a rap for the first Foodie Friday post. We'll be back next week with more food fun. And possibly a review of Lombardo's in Albany.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now THAT'S an Ode to Joy

This is so much better than the version we do at church. Chiara was smiling from ear to ear when I put this on. H/T to The Ironic Catholic for this silly but satisfying version of Ode.

Monday, July 25, 2011

21 questions for a spiritual midwife

I have Joyce Rupp's book Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self sitting on my desk next to a blank journal, just waiting for me to dive in. It was recommended to me by one of my dear spiritual mentors, but I've been hesitant to start, perhaps afraid of what I might discover about myself if I work through this book, or what I might feel called to do? I just chalk it up to the usual "I don't have enough time" excuse, but I know it's deeper than that.

Now, having read this great interview with Joyce by Mike Leach of Why Stay Catholic, I'm inspired to begin my journey through Joyce's "Door." He asks her 21 questions about her faith journey, her work and her hope for the Church and the world. What a great way to get to know someone. Here's the first few questions and answers to start you off, with a link to Mike's page for the rest:

1. Joyce, how are you an average Catholic?
I was certainly an average Catholic back in the 1950’s, when I was living on a farm in northwest Iowa. One of eight children, baptized in a small rural Catholic church, I attended a parochial elementary and high school. Today I live with more questions than answers when it comes to Catholicism. Perhaps that still makes me an average Catholic.

2. What is your favorite word?

3. What is your least favorite word?
I don’t have a least favorite. I find words intriguing.

4. What sound or noise do you love?
Listening to softly falling rain on foliage

5. What sound or noise do you hate?
Motorcycles coming down my street in the middle of the night

6. What is your favorite book?
The Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

7. Do you have a particular Catholic role model?
Caryll Houselander...
Click HERE to read the rest at Why Stay Catholic.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Catholic bloggers in NY's Capital Region

The latest issue of The Evangelist, the Diocese of Albany's weekly newspaper, included a story on local Catholic bloggers, and I was on the list.

Here's a snippet from the story by Angela Cave:

Among the thousands of Catholic bloggers populating the Internet with thoughts on spirituality, politics and the Church are several well-known residents of the Albany Diocese.

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of several books on spirituality and a column that appears in two newspapers. A parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar, she writes a personal blog called “Not Strictly Spiritual” ( in addition to contributing regularly to Our Sunday Visitor newspaper’s daily blog(

As many as 2,000 people read her posts at Our Sunday Visitor; about 100 follow Not Strictly Spiritual.

“Sometimes, it’s the oddest thing that will catch somebody’s attention,” said Mrs. DeTurris Poust, offering the examples of posts on a religion-themed episode of the “Glee” TV show and on an artsy statue of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

The blogger gets the biggest response when she exposes her vulnerability and helps readers on their own spiritual journeys.

Common topics include hindrances to her spiritual life, reflections on retreats and Bible readings, thoughts about liturgical seasons and an annual post about her miscarriage.

“People want that connection to other people when they’re hurting or going through a rough time,” she said. “I think that’s when my blog is at its best.”

On the other hand, “if you want a pesto recipe, I’ll give you that,” she added.

Some of her posts chronicle the lives of her husband and three children in words and photos, while others dissect the spiritual aspects of ordinary tasks.

One of Mrs. DeTurris Poust’s favorite blog entries explored her quest to survive the chore of doing laundry with a smile on her face, in a show of love for her family.

Yet another sought to find serenity in a bowl of oatmeal: “I want to become more aware of the connection between the fast-paced, non-thinking eating that I do and the fast-paced, non-thinking living that I do — and the praying that I don’t do,” she wrote.

But when she’s not in a “good spiritual place,” she’s honest about it with her readers.

“I certainly don’t want people to get the impression that I’ve got it all figured out,” she told The Evangelist. “I think we forget that, a lot of times — that we’re all out there, we’re all trying to walk this path and we can feel like we’re alone.”

You can read the full story, which includes links to other Capital Region bloggers, by clicking HERE. If you're curious about some of the Not Strictly Spiritual posts Angela mentions in her story, here are a few links (just click on the title):

Learning to Let Go, Starting with the Laundry

Finding Serenity in a Bowl of Oatmeal

Remembering the Power of One Small Life

Where Am I? Connecting the Spiritual Dots

Angela also mentioned my blogging at OSV Daily Take, which you can find by clicking HERE.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Setting the record straight on Mary Magdalene

She was one of Jesus' closest disciples, there at the foot of the cross when the others ran away, the first one Jesus appeared to after the Resurrection, a critical figure in the earliest Church, the "Apostle to the Apostles," and yet Mary Magdalene continues to be dogged by the incorrect identification as the prostitute from Scripture, or, when novelist Dan Brown gets involved, as the wife of Jesus.

So today, on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, I was so happy to read "Who Was Mary Magdala?" by Jesuit Father James Martin over on America's In All Things blog.

Father Martin writes:

The most benign explanation for this confusion over Mary’s identity is that there is a veritable crowd of Marys in the Gospel stories (besides Mary, the mother of Jesus, there is Mary of Bethany and Mary, the wife of Clopas). Mary Magdalene was also, oddly, conflated with a woman who had bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with oil. In AD 591, Pope Gregory I preached a sermon in which he proclaimed, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.”

This inaccurate identification became more or less church teaching for at least a millennium.

A less benign interpretation of this “confusion” is that the early church was threatened, even horrified, by the stunning example of a woman among the early disciples. Strictly based on the evidence in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene enjoyed an exalted standing. She was not only the first one to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection, but also the one who proclaimed the news of his resurrection to the other disciples, including those who would be the leaders of the early church communities: Peter, James, Andrew, and the rest.

Thus comes Mary’s traditional title: “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her fidelity to Jesus during the Crucifixion, as well as Jesus’ appearance to her, are marks of distinction that place her, at least in terms of her faith, above the men. Some of the “extracanonical,” or “apocryphal,” gospels (that is, those not included by the early church councils with the traditional four Gospels) picture her as the most favored of all the disciples. “[Christ loved] her more than all the disciples,” says the text known as The Gospel of Philip.

Perhaps it was convenient for the early church fathers to dismiss Mary Magdalene and even insult her as a prostitute, fearful of what her role would mean for the place of women in the early church.

They didn't teach that version in CCD class, did they? Can I get an Amen? Now, please go read the rest of the post -- which is an excerpt from Father Martin's A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Behind the Scenes with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More -- by clicking HERE. You'll get to read Father Martin's take on the "marginalization of Mary Magdalene" in its newest form, thanks to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which is too often taken as fact, even by well-meaning Catholics.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The truth about Dorothy Day, from someone who knows

I've always been drawn to Dorothy Day. Maybe it's the powerful combination of her words and actions. I think more so it's my awe for someone who's able to do what she did. To be willing -- happy, even -- to be mistaken for a homeless woman. To so radically embrace the poor and so faithfully embrace the Church. A modern-day St. Francis, but totally her own. Totally new.

Author and Orbis Books publisher Robert Ellsberg, who worked alongside Dorothy Day for the last five years of her life, writes beautifully and eloquently today (on Huffington Post) about Dorothy -- who she was, what she stood for, and the things we should never forget:

Despite all the sadness and suffering around her, she had an eye for the transcendent. There were always moments when it was possible to see beneath the surface. "Just look at that tree!" she would say. It might be an act of kindness, the sound of an opera on the radio, or the sight of flowers growing on the fire-escape outside her window: such moments caused her heart to rejoice. She liked to quote St. Teresa of Avila, who said, "I am such a grateful person that I can be purchased for a sardine."

Above all she was a woman of prayer. She attended daily Mass, when she was able; she rose at dawn each day to recite the morning office and to meditate on scripture. After years of reading the breviary the language of the Psalms had become her daily bread: "Sing to the Lord a new song ... sing joyfully to the Lord."

When I went to the Catholic Worker I was not motivated by explicitly religious interests. Like Dorothy, I had been raised in the Episcopal Church, but I had pretty much drifted away from organized religion. What drew me to the Catholic Worker was Dorothy's lifetime of consistent opposition to war, and the fact that her convictions were rooted in solidarity with the poor and those who suffered. Ultimately, I came to appreciate not just Dorothy's anti-war convictions but the deeper tradition and spirituality that sustained her. I understood nothing about Dorothy if I didn't realize the importance of the sacraments, prayer, liturgy, and the communion of saints, in which her witness was rooted. When I understood that, I felt a need to become a Catholic myself.

Reading that recollection gives me courage and hope. So often today we're led to believe we can either be true to the Church or be true to ourselves. Dorothy shows that we can be both. What a comfort and motivation to do more, be more, trust more.

If that doesn't get you, then try this conclusion to Ellsberg's post:

Dorothy was a great believer in what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called "the sacrament of the present moment." In each situation, in each encounter, in each task before us, she believed, there is a path to God. We don't need to be in a monastery or a chapel. We don't need to become different people first. We can start today, this moment, where we are, to add to the balance of love in the world, to add to the balance of peace.

Start today. Right here. Right now. And be sure to go to HuffPo to read the full post by clicking HERE.

From Hundred Acre Wood to Deathly Hallows

In the span of about five days, I saw the new Winnie the Pooh movie with my 6-year-old, the Broadway show Wicked with my 11-year-old, and Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the last Harry Potter film, with my 14-year-old. Those are some pretty disparate entertainment choices – the benefit of widely spaced children – but the funny thing is that they’re not really all that different when you strip away the smoke and mirrors. And honey pots.

Okay, Potter’s Lord Voldemort and Pooh Bear’s “Backson” aren’t quite in the same league, but the overarching themes of all three of these productions are the same: the power of love, the importance of friendship, the willingness to confront our worst fears, no matter how terrible, in order to do the right thing. As it turns out, whether you’re in the Hundred Acre Wood or the Forbidden Forest, life still comes down to choices -- between darkness and light, good and evil.

As I sat in the theater with Chiara, who was just a few days shy of six, I soaked up her enthusiasm for the beloved Pooh characters as they bounced and rolled and waddled along, doing what they always do – getting confused, helping each other, searching for the one who can protect them from the scary stuff in life, Christopher Robin. And, for a little kid not yet old enough to know real evil, a colorful, horned, cartoon “Backson” can be just as scary as anything J.K. Rowling conjured up.

Even in Wicked, the awesome prequel to the Wizard of Oz, the story of the wicked witch turns out to be a story of friendship, trust betrayed and trust regained, and, of course, doing the right thing even when the right thing gets you exiled, or, worse, melted.

How often do we face choices that have the power to change the course of a life – our own, our children’s, a stranger’s. I’m not talking about life-or-death choices, although those sometimes come along as well. I’m talking about the little choices that can have a big impact: the words we use, the look on our face, the things we do in the course of our day–to-day lives. Do we choose light over darkness? Do we cast someone aside out of mistaken notions of who we think they are or ought to be? Do we let fear keep us from doing what we know is right even if it’s hard? Do we have friends to walk the journey with us? Do we constantly keep an eye out for the One who can comfort us, protect us, guide us onto the right path?

Some things are universal. Whether it’s a quaking Piglet fearfully going out into the unknown to save his friends trapped in a ditch or a stalwart Harry Potter unflinchingly preparing to sacrifice his own life to save his friends and his world, the stories come back around to the same lesson: We are called to walk this path with others, and to give of ourselves – maybe even all of ourselves – for those we care about. And even for those we don’t. Sounds a lot like the Gospel, doesn't it, with some animation, great music and special effects to drive the point home. I don't know if my kids got all that, but I sure did.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer blossoms, stuffed and fried UPDATED

When I went to Rome last September, I roamed from restaurant to restaurant, desperately asking (in my pathetic version of Italian): "Fiori di zucca fritta?" Fried zucchini blossoms? And the answer was a resounding: "No, not in season." Argh.

I had never had fried zucchini blossoms and had never made fried zucchini blossoms, but my grandmother always talks about making them back in the day. So this has been my quest: to find them, to make them, to eat them.

Then yesterday, at the Delmar Farmer's Market, I spied a bushel of them, although I was completely put off by the price - $1 a blossom - and knew my grandmother would be totally outraged if I paid that price. So I walked on by and then I walked back, and looked longingly. My friend Dorothy finally said, "Just buy them!" So I asked if I could get a deal if I bought a bunch. I ended up with 18 blossoms for $8, which is not bad at all. That's them above and below, before I removed the stems and trimmed them. Aren't they pretty?

Now to figure out what to do with the delicate blossoms. So I looked through a Rome book Dennis bought me last Christmas and found a recipe I could adapt, which means I was planning to leave out the anchovies. I don't care how much flavor they have. Blech.

I washed the blossoms and patted them dry. Then I took goat cheese and stuffed it into each flower, wrapping the petals around it. UPDATED: The second time I did this recipe, I added some chopped fresh basil, some chopped scallions, a scoop of cream cheese and a splash of half and half to the goat cheese and mashed it all together before stuffing. Yum. Try that. Next I dipped it in a flour batter made with flour, water, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of white vinegar. Finally, they went into the frying pan, where I cooked them in oil for about five minutes. Remove, place on a warmed platter and sprinkle with coarse salt. Like this:

The result: Squisito! I fully expected to get at least four of the blossoms, but my girls liked them so much I got only two. I'm making another round tonight and may try tweaking the goat cheese filling by blending in some garlic or other flavoring. We'll see.

I reported all this to my grandmother with pride. When she made them, she didn't stuff them, just battered and fried them up. I may try that another day, if I happen upon a bushel of blossoms for a good price before the season is over.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Meeting Sister Moon on the way to the Y

I have to admit, when my alarm went off at 5:10 a.m. today, I was not bursting with enthusiasm for the morning yoga class I planned to attend. For a minute or two I considered closing my eyes and skipping the whole thing. But I knew I'd feel better about my day if I started it with some deep breathing and yoga stretches. So, I headed out.

I got to the garage only to find I had the wrong car keys. I dropped my yoga mat -- the very same one I'd need to put my face down on in a few minutes -- onto the dirty garage floor. It was just one of those mornings. I headed toward the YMCA grumbling under my breath and listening to Derek and the Dominoes sing Layla.

And then I turned the corner and gasped. Really. There, right in front of me, was a full moon so big, so low, and so perfect that it took my breath away. And suddenly my entire mood, my entire day took a turn for the better. I smiled the whole way to the Y, thrilled every time there was a clearing through the trees and the moon came back into view. As I turned into the Y, with no cars coming in either direction, I just waited in the road for a minute, soaking in one last look.

As I got out of the car, I found myself whispering a prayer of thanks -- for the unexpected beauty, for the wake up call when I was allowing minor inconveniences to color my day, for the reminder of the awesomeness of God's great creation. I wish I'd had my camera with me, but, to be honest, no picture could have done it justice.

I've always felt a connection to the moon, more so than the sun. What? You find that odd. Yes, I'm odd. Seeing that moon today reminded me of a little moon-inspired reflection I'd scribbled into a journal long ago, a sort of Ode to the Moon. My version, I guess, of St. Francis' Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. (So many reasons to love that saint.)

To this day I can remember that night almost 20 years ago, when I felt surprised by and drawn to the moon in much the same way as I did this morning. Back then I was walking home from the train after a long day of work, guided through the local cemetery and empty parking lot by a sliver of crescent moon and the clearly visible dark side. (My favorite part of the moon. Of course. If you're going to be wacky, be wacky all the way.)

I know I'll remember today's moon with the same clarity, not only because it was so beautiful but because it arrived on my horizon at just the right moment.

Have you ever had a moment like that, when some glimpse of beauty or wonder has caught you by surprise and lifted you up? What thing in nature speaks powerfully to you?

Here's the song Canticle of the Sun to start your Friday and set the tone for your weekend.

"The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And all creation is shouting for joy!
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Listen with the ear of your heart...

From the Monastery of St. Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy.
Photo by Mary DeTurris Poust

Happy Feast of St. Benedict! Here's a snippet about St. Benedict from my newest book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass:

"While the Rule of St. Benedict covers everything from how much wine the monks were allowed to drink with dinner to receiving guests at the monastery, it's still very much relevant to our lives today. Even the parts about moderation in food and drink can be adapted to our modern lives.

"St. Benedict opens the Rule with these words: 'Listen with the ear of your heart.' That's a favorite quote of mine, and it hangs on a stone plaque in my office. It gets to the heart of prayer life, and the heart of life in general. We're not meant to run from one thing to another without focus, without peace, without direction. We need to stop, breathe, be quiet, and listen with our hearts.

"...St. Benedict teaches us to live an integrated life. So prayer is woven into the work we do each day, whether we drive a bus, balance budget sheets, or care for our children. Our community is our family, our friends, our parish, our workplace. And our study? Well, we're doing that right now as we attempt to learn more about faith and prayer in order to grow closer to Christ.

"So if we lean toward a holistic view of spirituality, of our faith as intricately woven into every moment and event of our lives, then Benedictine spirituality could be a path to explore..."