Betty Duffy

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Show Me the Narrow Gate

My friend, Pedge, is gorgeous. Tall, slender, brunette with perfect porcelain skin, she’s shaped like a capital letter S because she slouches, in that hip-jutting fashion peculiar to certain models. And she is, indeed, a model. She’s filmed commercials. This, after having had five children, and being, if I may say so, an entire year older than me.

The other day, I was sitting at the counter in Pedge’s kitchen when she revealed that she’d removed her name and portfolio from her agency.

“Why did you do that?” I asked, stunned. She stood at the sink rinsing suds off a sippy cup while she told me that it had been on her mind to do for awhile, that the whole business was causing her stress and internal division. She had trouble getting the words out. Modeling is something she has talked about pursuing since she was very young. And if I haven’t made it clear, unlike many modeling aspirants, Pedge actually has the attributes necessary to be a model. The first time you meet her she can make one very nervous. What is all this beauty doing here in a church basement prayer meeting?

“It keeps coming back to me,” she said, “What you said about how God could sum up Mary’s life in just a few sentences.”

As often is the case, my moments of enlightenment have a habit of fleeing from my consciousness after I’ve broadcast them. “When did I say that?”

It had been during one of our Thursday morning Gospel reflections, meditating on the Annunciation, how God said that Mary shall conceive a child, call him Jesus, and he shall be set for the rise and fall of many. And then I remembered, “That’s it. That’s Mary’s life in a nutshell. Her purpose on Earth was to give birth to the Son of God. It was not to write a tome about the highs and lows and drudgery of Biblical womanhood. Not to be famous”—though, ironically, her fame is universal due to her unquestioning obedience to God and her humility in bearing her great task.

I had been trying to chastise myself for spending too much time thinking about achieving “greater” things than my marriage and family. Be like Mary, satisfied that God has carved my little here and now out of eternity, and that he can sum it up in just a few words: marriage, children, this quiet life where grace is plentiful but witnesses are few.

I never meant to imply that Pedge should quit modeling, or that I should quit writing. We’re finally doing things we enjoy, finally able to leave the house for more than a couple hours without fearing the baby will suffer and die in the absence of our breasts. Where once, all I needed was to get out of the house, and have a little break for my mental health, now I feel free to come and go, and perhaps, just perhaps, I need to look homeward a little bit more.

“Maybe it is only this motherhood,” she said, “Affecting these five little souls in my family, and not me on a pulpit affecting the multitudes. What do you think it means to really be moved by the Holy Spirit, to be transformed, in our state in life?”

The last time I felt moved to dramatic change of life was when I reverted from a life of sin to a life of grace—nearly twelve years ago. The Holy Spirit in my life now, I’m ashamed to admit, more frequently feels like a subconscious nuisance.

This morning my son was playing with a couple of empty laundry baskets, stacking them up, letting them topple, connecting two together and dragging them on the floor like a train. He, himself was quiet, but the sound of plastic rubbing on plastic nestled into my subconscious, largely ignored, at the same time I realized that I was growing inexplicably more and more irritated. I couldn’t isolate what was causing my shoulders to tense up, the infernal growl beginning to stir in my lower stomach. And then I snapped to—it is that god-forsaken noise over there, that water torture plastic sound my son is making. “STOP it!” I said.

Maybe it’s not an exact metaphor, but my response to the more gentle irritation of the Holy Spirit is the same. I have a feeling that what I’m doing is not good for me or my family, a sense of division when for instance, I mindlessly check my stats on this blog: “Show me Denmark! Show me California! Come on Stat counter, Feed me.” The thrill of watching my audience show up in real time is the validation that every writer seeks, and that the internet uniquely makes possible. But it interferes with what I initially set out to do here, which is write because it is what I love and feel called to do. I have knowledge that I have lost my bearings, but I silence it, “Be quiet and let me have my fun.”

And thus my continued transformation into the person Christ wants me to be is postponed, for another day, because I’m having my time. There are so many ways in which I do not want to be transformed, so many ways in which I’d like to continue garumphing along this path of mediocrity.

Pedge continued, “I’m not saying that I’m going to just sit at home and do nothing. I just know that for here and now, taking my name off that list is something I had to do, and whatever God wants to do with me from here on is fine with me. And already, I feel so much more peace about it.”


I recently became aware of a small group of Catholics living here in Southeastern Indiana who have chosen the narrow gate. Mom went to Mass at their Parish, and saw some girls dressed up in long dresses like cast members from Little House on the Prairie. “Oh, are you putting on a play?” she asked them. But they were not. Every morning they clothe themselves in modesty, setting themselves apart from the world like the Amish.

I cannot imagine the Lord finding fault with anything about their lives. Is that what it means to be transformed? Am I too easy on myself? I find aspects of that life very attractive. But that setting apart also makes me a little bit angry. Christians cannot shrink out of the dialogue for fear of committing the sins of pride or vanity. As soon as we are hiding in our cloister we will congratulate ourselves on the sacrifice of our gifts. Pride follows all humanity everywhere they seek to flee it.

I was recently chastised in a combox over at Pentimento. Commenter, Soundtime, said, “Be an active agent, or don't, but don't blame something else for one's own lack of agency.”

The internet is not responsible for my vanity or loss of concentration. Burning my jeans and taking up the veil is not going to ensure my modesty or chastity. Hiding in my house won’t make me a more humble mother. A global cataclysm might cure my addiction to stats, but it will not transform my soul. To be transformed I need to fight the battle at hand. Turn off the damn statcounter. It’s not that hard.

But maybe I give my fallen soul too much credit. Maybe the “Amish” Catholics in Heaven will pray for my soul while it flounders around Purgatory clinging to a pair of holy jeans, saying, “I WILL NOT SHRINK OUT OF THE RACE!!!”


Emily J. said...

Remember when we were camping in PA, discussing "Dressing with Dignity," and M., wearing a tight fitting slip dress over her pregnant belly, connected how you dress and interact with the world with a calling? You are obviously not called to retreat to a type of domestic monasticism to wear long, loose dresses everyday, grind your own flour, and give up the internet. It's not "the temperament God gave you." And your blog is obviously touching a chord with others that is (hopefully) leading them closer to God and not away from Him. So as long as you can moderate your appetite for checking your statcounter to the point where it serves as inspiration and not obsession, maybe you can feel more confident in continuing the race.

Pedge is stunningly beautiful. Some portrait painter needs to immortalize her for her family and perhaps his fame - and for God's glory, of course.

Kristin T. (@kt_writes) said...

It has been far too long since I've read your lovely, thought-provoking words! This post was the perfect welcome back for me, both in your ability to tell a story and in the ways you get me to think.

I've also been thinking/writing about what the Holy Spirit feels like in my life. Sometimes I just *know* the spirit is working in me, so I've been trying to put my finger on those moments, so I can better recognize them and pay attention.

And the whole thing about blog stats--I can relate to that trap. I've also chosen to turn my back on it. Every once in a while my husband checks out my Google Analytics stats and shares a few interesting things with me, but ultimately, I write for the same reasons you do.

Betty Duffy said...

Emily, I like to think of dressing as a "calling." M could get away with the pigtails and halter-top because of her figure and her bearing--but I couldn't. Is there really a calling to be funky sexy Catholic? I sort of think there is, because M is attractive in a way that makes me think, "If that's Catholic, that's what I want to be." See someone like M singing a Litany, and I want to sing a Litany. With the Prairie girls, unfortunately, the opposite is true. I see them and think, "No thank you." But they are somehow edifying too, a sign of contradiction.

Kristin, welcome back. Oddly enough, I spent most of last night getting caught up on your posts as well. I like your thought on making note of the times when it seems the Holy Spirit might be working in my life. Maybe actually listing them and the circumstances that surround them would be a useful thing to do. A journal project to add to my "lovelist."

mrsdarwin said...

I don't really have anything profound to say (boy, that's true on so many levels!) but I think that seeing people in modestly period dress in Church, while vaguely edifying maybe, makes it seem as if Catholicism is a throwback that has no application in the modern world. As if there's just no way to be holy in modern clothes, which I know is not true. Didn't St. Francis de Sales say that he would have Christians the best-dressed people in a room?

Anyway, people who wear prairie dresses for modesty's sake tend to forget how tightly fitted the actually dresses from the 1880's were. Remember how tightly Mary has to lace her corset to get her dress to fit properly? People didn't start wearing this baggy shapeless stuff until the flapper era, and then it was short.

Enbrethiliel said...


That's a great quote from St. Francis de Sales, Mrs. Darwin! =)

I, too, think that the way one interacts with the world--which includes but is not limited to the way one dresses--is part of the Christian calling. Christianity has such transformative power that it can't help affecting the way we appear to others, whether or not we're talking about Jesus or doing something explicitly religious.

So bring on the "funky, sexy Catholics"! ;-)

mrsdarwin said...

Well, beauty and truth are both attributes of God. And the modern religious conception of the weird pioneer dress is as unrelated to beauty as it is to any true historical style. So I think we can safely say that it's an offense against God to wear something that's an offense against both beauty and truth. Betty, if I ever hear of you wearing a pioneer dress, I'ma come up myself and deal with it.

Betty Duffy said...

You have my word, Mrs. D. that I will not wear a pioneer dress.

Do you think "Funky, Sexy, Catholic" would sell on a bumper sticker? Maybe a t-shirt?

Betty Duffy said...

I meant to add, MRs. D, the following quote of yours is spot on:

"I think that seeing people in modestly period dress in Church, while vaguely edifying maybe, makes it seem as if Catholicism is a throwback that has no application in the modern world. As if there's just no way to be holy in modern clothes, which I know is not true."

Pentimento said...

B, that commenter in my combox is a prickly person. Please, if you can, don't take his admonition personally. I sort of thought he was admonishing me, not you, besides.

When we first moved here, my husband found the Latin Mass and we started going. Eighty percent of the attendees were members of one large extended family, and they wore prairie dresses, homeschooled, and lived in the woods. When my three-year-old started acting out too obnoxiously at Mass (one of them said to me, of him, "He's as much work as five or six would be," causing me to run away), I was relieved that I no longer "had to" go. I "had to" keep him home so as not to disturb the good Catholics, and go to a later non-Latin Mass alone. I was quite sure that I was being scathingly judged because . . . oh, any number of things. I have only one (living) child, and they have many. I'm from New York City. To look at me you can tell that I'm not from here. I don't wear prairie dresses. My husband kept urging me to befriend these moms, thinking they'd be a good influence on me, and I had to explain to him finally that if they had wanted to be friends, they would have done more than just friend me on Facebook, since they knew I couldn't drive and was stuck here alone all winter, pulling my groceries for a mile in the snow in a wheeled cart and taking my non-home-schooled, acting-out son to his pre-school on a sled. And now the Latin Mass time has been switched to 7:30 AM, so I'm doubly relieved.

I think often about this family. They are truly good, faithful people. They love God, and are doing what He wants them to do, and have never wavered from that vocation, which they were fortunate enough to discern early and to have devout parents to nurture. Compared with them, I am from a planet slightly more distant and far more sinister than Mars. I struggle incessantly with God and my vocation. My tears are my food night and day, etc. I know I will never be a "good" person nor a "good" Catholic like those prairie moms. I am sad, angry, and lonely.

But all we can do is pray that God will use us as He has made us -- with all of our proclivities, gifts, sins, and tendencies to folly -- for His glory and honor. I believe that He will show you -- is showing you -- the way (and that He may even do the same for me).

Enbrethiliel said...


When I saw this picture of Fr. Longnecker (the 'blogger at Standing on My Head), I thought of this post:

Betty Duffy said...

E, thanks for the link to Fr Longnecker. That really is the sort of spunk that makes being Catholic, and a priest rather attractive. I think we learn soon enough that our vocations will require sacrifice.

There will always be someone somewhere who seems more conservative, more pious, more faithful, more sacrificial than I am. And I think that's what bothers me about the prairie dresses. All of that measurement is put on display somehow, whether it is intentional or not.

P, I think your experience also points to the inadvertant division that can occur within the Church on a very personal level. I'm glad that Pope Benedict has made the Tridentine Mass more readily available for those who would seek it, and I do love going to a Latin Mass (Novus Ordo though, not Tridentine), but I can see why perhaps, it was stifled. Somehow the message of Christ's mercy is overshadowed by the externals of that style of life.

I'm praying for you P. I don't think Christ wants you to feel sad, angry and lonely--though they are feelings to which I can certainly relate. One of the things that has stuck with me about Fr. Crotty's (the charismatic priest) talk is that conversion to Christ IS DEEP HEALING. It takes time, maybe a lifetime.

On my combox admonishment, would it be weird if I said I liked it? I don't take it personally. In fact I tend to seek out people and friendships that can defog my perceptions of myself.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the prayers, B, I really mean it. I'm glad you weren't offended by your co-commenter. As you know, I know him personally, and he can be a little in-your-face at times, but it's all in the service of what is so very important to him (and to me too) -- music.

jenX said...

I have, throughout my life, great desired to walk through that narrow gate with its modest dresses. A few key reasons why I haven't that I couldn't put in a comment. But, if I lived down the street, I'd tell you all about it. I miss something I've never known...Pedge indeed sounds beautiful.