Saturday, August 29, 2009

Because We Live in a Dark, Dark Time

 Why did we all think we were so smart?

The 20th century brought mankind no closer to the truth, no nearer to happiness than it was at the end of the 19th. Arguably, things got worse.

There were countless medical advances, including "miracle" antibiotics, yet we ended the century beset by the worst contagion since the Black Death. It's called AIDS, and while it may be under relative control in the affluent USA, it is decimating Africa. The United Nations and others made well-intentioned efforts, yet we had more wars and killed more people with "smarter" weapons than in any previous century in history. Psychoanalysis spawned an almost limitless movement of "self-help," but there's more mental illness in America today than a century ago.

As psychologist James Hillman has it in a disturbing book title, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse. More hypotheses were explored by more scientists in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. More trees were destroyed to print more circular arguments. More children were murdered before they had a chance to be born.

How can we possibly believe in progress? How can we be so smugly self-satisfied?

Darwin, Marx, and Freud stood at the head of the century offering new visions, dangling new utopias. But science, sociology, and psychology have led us nowhere new. We're the same fallen bunch, killing each other, destroying our planet, and justifying it all with the tools of self-hypnosis provided by the media, the internet, and our own suggestibility.

It makes a man proud to be a Catholic.

The Catholic Church teaches that the truth is not arrived at by dialectical reasoning. (What happened to Marxism anyway?) Neither is truth arrived at by scientific experimentation (unless truth includes the atom bomb, cloning of humans, and the potential to create viruses that could wipe out mankind).

Truth comes by way of Revelation, and we have had that Truth for 2000 years now. God gave us his final Word on the subject in the Roman province called Palestine during and through the life of a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. As St. John of the Cross wrote, God has nothing more to say.

I have chosen to illustrate this post with Jules Bastien-Lepage's painting of Joan of Arc because (a) I love it and (b) it is an image of small-R revelation. Joan is listening to an angel (he's hovering in the tree behind her) and the angel is telling her to get on a horse and get across France. History, and the detailed transcript of the trial that led to Joan's martyrdom, tells us what happened after that.

There's another reason for this image: God may have had nothing more to say after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, but he keeps sending us little reminders, by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Every time things look dark, he sends us a saint or two. At the end of the Middle Ages, when the Church was mired in corruption and error, along came Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Clare, and others. When the Protestant Reformation threatened to scuttle 1500 years of Catholic culture, along came a whole army of saints, including Charles Borromeo, Teresa of Avila, and her student, the aforesaid John of the Cross.

Cut to the present day. When the Archdiocese of Boston looked like it might collapse in disgrace, along came Cardinal Sean O'Malley; along came young pastors like Fr. David Barnes and Fr. Dan Hennessey; along came a new generation of committed young men swelling enrollment at St. John's seminary. There is a palpable vitality in Catholic Boston today, and in parishes like ours in Beverly. Eucharistic Adoration has gone perpetual in Boston for the first time in forty years; our Adoration chapel in Beverly is attended sixty hours a week.

Explain that with dialectical reasoning or scientific hypotheses. We Catholics have a different explanation. We call it the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Because I Have Daughters

A child of the 1960s, an aging peacenik, I imagine that I smell suspiciously liberal to some of my more conservative Catholic friends (and most of my Catholic friends are decidedly conservative, hewing closely to Church teachings on social issues). Confronted with their adamant views and with the Church’s unequivocal teaching on abortion, on women in the priesthood, and on other related issues, I have known for a while that the time would come when I would have to come clean with my thoughts on these issues. I started this blog. My foot is in it up to the eyeballs now. As St. Jimi of Hendrix famously said, Time has come today.

I am the father of two beautiful, bright, independent-minded young women. Both are intrigued with my conversion experience. I'm sure that they wonder what I think about these and other issues. For myself, being their proud father makes these issues realer than real. If something is right or wrong for the women most precious to me on earth, and that includes my wife Katie, then how could it be otherwise for the woman farthest from me on earth?

St. Thomas More was a father of daughters, including reputedly the smartest Englishwoman of her generation, Margaret More Roper. I'm sure his relationship with Margaret and his other daughters conditioned his attitudes. I revere his memory and ask myself where he would stand today on abortion, on women in the priesthood. I know where he would stand: with the Church.

I think of St. Francis of Assisi, who had no children, and ask myself where he would stand, and I have a different answer: Francis would stand in the middle of the road kissing a leper. If Francis had any response to abortion, it would be prayer and prayer alone. I don’t think politics factored at all into his spiritual life. Obedience, yes, not politics. Francis renewed the entire Church at a time of crisis, while More was “merely” a martyr in a crisis involving a tyrant with a highly developed sexual appetite.

I will come back to Thomas and Francis, but first a sidebar and then the firing line.

Sidebar: I did not become a Catholic to wrangle ideologically with people to the left and right of me, and I do not write here from an ideological position. I write, as God gives me the strength and wisdom, from the heart. I became a Catholic to get closer to God and to serve my neighbor better in the years that are left to me. Endless political wrangling is a zero-sum game, because if there is one thing you can be sure of, it is that you will always find someone to the right and left of you. I have an uncle who is to the right of Attila the Hun, but there’s always Saruman, there’s always Joba the Hutt.

I have always been against abortion. Katie knows this about me and I trust my daughters do too. Since the time Katie became pregnant with our first child, Martha (photo, right), there has never been a doubt in my mind about the issue. Katie and I did not take prenatal tests to determine whether Martha was healthy. We did not know her sex in advance. We were prepared to embrace her, or him, whether she or he had ten fingers or none. God is great. Martha has not only ten fingers but also a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Chicago.

When Marian was five days old, my mother, visiting, walked through the nursery and saw that the baby was not breathing. EMTs and ambulances were summoned, and ten frenetic minutes later we were in the emergency room waiting for word. And the word was good. Despite any oxygen-deprivation that may have occurred, there is nothing wrong with that brain: Marian was designated a Carolina Scholar by UNC Chapel Hill, earning a full ride on her merits, and will graduate next spring with a degree from the Kenan Flagler School of Business. I am privately hopeful that she will support me in my old age.

How could I have ever considered abortion? For financial advantage? For convenience? And if Martha or Marian becomes pregnant? I have already told them what I want them to know about this: If you have any doubt about keeping the child, give the child to me and your mother. We'll raise your child. We'll raise our grandchild. I know they know where I stand on this one.

Choice? Let's talk about choice, and here some Catholic ideology may slip in, though my heart continues to speak first. When you talk about choice, you are talking about choosing not the meaning of motherhood, not the extent of women's rights. You are choosing where you stand on a far bigger issue, in some ways the biggest. Choose: Either we are created by God or we are the result of an accidental collision of chemicals, a genetic biproduct "cultured" inside a woman, as in a test tube. That makes the woman a test tube and all of us, the woman included, dispensable. Scrape out that culture, dump the chemicals, and you have cut our link to God. Cut God out of the picture and it's only a matter of time until the Apocalypse. Believe me, it won't be pretty.

Women in the priesthood? That's an easy one for me. Neither of my daughters wants to be a priest. If they did, they could be ordained in a Protestant denomination. But seriously: What are the Protestants doing now, ordaining women? Playing catch-up after 500 years? Look at the role of, the reverence accorded women in the Catholic Church: Mary, Agatha, Teresa, Catherine, Therese, Elizabeth, Theresa (lots of Theresas) . . . How many hundreds of Catholic women through the ages have been acknowledged as spiritual leaders by their Church? How many Episcopalian women have been acknowledged as spiritual leaders by theirs? Oh, some women who happen to have been Episcopalian are remembered for their contributions to society, but within the church? The line of authority is unequivocally patriarchal. So now you're going to ordain women? Please. That's called caving.

Pope Benedict, "my pope," has a pretty good answer on this whole question of women and the priesthood. He said, "The Twelve with whom the Last Supper was celebrated were in fact men. Yet if we understand correctly the role of service in the Church, then we will also get the emphasis right. And the answer is that Mary is higher than Peter." The point is that the Church is not about worldly power, or shouldn't be, and believe me, my pope realizes this. The Church is not or shouldn't be about politics. It's about service. It's about devotion to and service in the name of our creator. It's about God.

Thomas More was a politician, until he saw that politics would get him nowhere but the chopping block, whereupon he went publicly silent and privately prayerful. Francis was never a politician. In these two saints, I see two possible responses to the abortion issue, and I think I see the analog of two present-day positions: that of the Vatican and of certain American Catholic bishops who vehemently oppose abortion to the point of denying communion to politicians who support it. It was curious to see how quiet the Vatican was while certain bishops were railing against the University of Notre Dame for allowing Obama to speak at commencement last spring. And how kindly my pope welcomed our president a few weeks later.

I go back to Thomas More. In the movie "A Man for All Seasons," my favorite all-time, hands down, there is an early scene between More, played by Paul Scofield, and Cardinal Wolsey, played by Orson Welles. Exasperated that More refuses to meddle in the politics of winning a divorce for Henry VIII, the cardinal sputters, "God, you would like to rule the kingdom with prayers, wouldn't you?" More answers, "Yes, I should."

Like More, I should like to win the abortion issue with prayers, because I think prayers work, while I question the value of the endless wrangling from the right and left that has been going on in the thirty-five years since Roe v. Wade, through administrations Democratic and Republican. Did abortions decrease at all during the eight years of Bush 43? I don't think so.

Let's all pray for an end to abortion. Meanwhile, oh, dear, conservative Catholic friends so close to my heart, I am deeply proud to be a Catholic and as comfortable as an old shoe with the Church's position on these social issues.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Because of Cesareo

I imagine that all of us have angels in our lives. We may not see them, but I imagine it’s hard to escape their influence.

Not all angels are dressed in shimmering white. Not all of them have wings. Some are bossy (the archangels), some whisper and flutter. Some fight (Michael). Some fall (Lucifer). The whole business of angels is complicated. One of the most significant angels in my life is Cesareo Pelaez, 76 today and battling the consequences of a stroke but 37 and a regular hurricane when I first met him in 1970. (That's Cesareo on the right in front, with my brother David, wife Katie, and daughter Marian.)

Cesareo Pelaez landed in my life when I was nineteen, during my own fall from A student at premier boarding school to C student at premier liberal-arts college. But hey, it was 1969. My wheels were spinning, even though I knew that what I wanted and needed most was spiritual direction in my life. Cesareo provided that, directly and indirectly. It’s the indirect part that led to my becoming a Catholic nearly forty years later.

For reasons too complex to entertain here (the direct part), I took several long trips in Western Europe with Cesareo. I was five years removed from dedicated service as an altar boy at my family’s Episcopal Church and, except for Christmas and Easter, and “chapel” events at the aforesaid boarding school, I had not attended church in those five years.

In Europe with Cesareo, I did not so much attend church as explore The Church, the church of his devout youth, the Roman Catholic Church. This was not on the program initially; remember, this is the indirect part. But in every city and town, it seems now in memory, Cesareo’s Catholicism, brewed up in the hothouse of Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s, bubbled to the fore, and I, the nineteen-year-old non-Catholic, learned about Catholic culture.

After a while, it was quite common for us to take in Mass at Notre Dame or Montserrat or St. Peter’s or San Damiano; it was par for the course if we stopped into a Catholic bookstore and browsed for an hour; and a day at the Prado was spent mostly in front of saints and Madonnas. We visited Lourdes three times and walked in the candlelight processions of thousands, chanting the Rosary simultaneously in three or four languages—although that does sound impossible, doesn’t it? Memory is a funny thing. We visited Assisi and gawked at the intact body of St. Clare, 800 years old but seemingly fresh and firm as a daisy. Cesareo knew the precise location of the obvious icons (the Pieta in the first chapel to the right inside St. Peter’s) and the less obvious (the Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli). We saw them all.

Thirty-five years passed. Cesareo and I worked as business partners, usually harmoniously. Each of us started our own businesses—he a world-famous magic show, me a couple of far less celebrated publishing ventures. The businesses continue to exist within a block of each other on the main street of our town. Our homes are a mile apart, also on the same street. Cesareo is my friend, my former mentor, but first and foremost one of my archangels.

I suspect that all of us who have converted to the Catholic Church can point to some Cesareos—angels who came fluttering or flying or storming into our lives, bearing, maybe in spite of themselves, the Good News.

I would not be a Catholic today without Cesareo, and for that I will be forever in his debt.

What are the names and stories of your angels?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Because There Are Good Fathers

Born in 1951, I have lived during six papacies—Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—four Italians, a Pole, and a German, six men in white walking around in a field of Roman numerals. Although John XXIII is already "Blessed" and John Paul II was a paradigm-shifting statesman, for my money, Benedict XVI is the best pope of my lifetime.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Because Dorothy Day Was a Catholic

Dorothy Day was more my political cup of tea: a hunger-striking, pro–Civil Rights, anti–Vietnam War, out-on-the-picket-lines kind of gal. Funny that I didn’t know about her in the 1960s, but only discovered her as a fellow convert last year.

A radical socialist writer in her twenties, Day ended her first pregnancy with an abortion she later regretted deeply. When she became pregnant again, by a man she loved, she chose to have the child baptized in the Catholic Church even though it meant losing her (atheist) lover. When a nun told her that she herself should convert if her child was going to be a Catholic, Day agreed—and began a lifelong journey of faith.

Committed to the working man and woman, she combined social activism with Christian devotion by founding The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that sold for one cent. Its mission was to lure workers away from communism (this was the 1930s) and to show them that the Church had a viable social program for them as well. Inspired by the itinerant evangelist Peter Maurin, she opened the first Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in New York City a year later.

Her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is one of the great spiritual memoirs I have read. Day’s cause for beatification and canonization was formally opened with Vatican approval in 2000.

Here is a beautiful bit from Dorothy Day’s book Loaves and Fishes:

Someone once described me in an interview as “authoritative.” Later, listening to a tape recording of a talk I had given on the plight of agricultural workers, I had to admit that I did sound didactic. . . . If I am didactic it is because Peter Maurin was my teacher, because he gave me principles to live by and lessons to study, and because I am so convinced of the rightness of his proposals.

“How can you be so sure?” Mike Wallace once asked me in a television interview. He spoke with wonder rather than irritation, because he felt my confidence was rooted in religion. I told him that unless I felt sure I would not speak at all. If I were ever visited by doubts—either religious ones or doubts about my vocation in this movement—I would accept it as a temptation, as a great suffering that I must share with so much of the world today.

Even then, deep within, I would be sure; even though I said to myself, “I believe because I want to believe, I hope because I want to hope, I love because I want to love.” These very desires would be regarded by God as He regarded those of Daniel, who was called a man of desires, and whom He rewarded.

Because William F. Buckley Was a Catholic

There are many very smart Catholics and I admire smart people. Don't you? William F. Buckley may have spoken with marbles in his mouth. He may have been a thorn in the side of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam years and I was on the peacenik side, but I always thought he was one smart dude. Imagine my surprise to learn that he was also a devout Catholic. Here's a beautiful line from his autobiography of faith, "Nearer, My God."

To ponder the glory of God is to worship a transcendence that gives us a measure of man, near-infinitely small on the scale of things, but infinitely great, as the complement of divine love. Who are you, buster? I am the man Christ-God died for.

Why are you a Catholic? Send me your answer and I'll publish it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Because It's OK for Catholics to Laugh

I just found the latest interview between Stephen Colbert and Fr. James Martin, author of My Life with the Saints. It was this book that tipped my scales and led to my becoming a Catholic. (See "For All the Saints.") Both Colbert and Martin are Catholics.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Turning to Religion - Jim Martin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Because of the Catholics in Front of Me

Every morning at seven I sit in the same pew.

When I first began attending mass as a non-Catholic eighteen months ago, I sat on the opposite side of the nave, halfway back on the Epistle side. In our church we call this St. Joseph’s aisle because a statue of the saint watches from the head of it. Back then we had a newly ordained assistant priest who was a native of The Congo. He had a thick accent that my aging ears had trouble translating. In a short series of daily jumps during my first week as a Catholic-in-training, I migrated from Epistle side to Gospel side, from St. Joseph’s aisle to St. Mary’s, and close enough to the front of the nave to be near the pulpit without being under it. Here, in the sixth pew from the front I could read Father Charles’s lips.

A year ago, after the required instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church. A month later Father Charles moved on to another parish. Fortunately, Father Barnes, our gifted pastor, remains behind. Although his homilies can be heard clearly in the rearmost pews, I stay here in my spot, in what I think of as Orchestra Left, Row 6, Seat 101. Like a lifelong opera buff determined to die during the climactic aria of
Rigoletto, they will have to carry me out someday.

A friend recently asked me why I became a Catholic. A number of possible answers came to mind, but one answer jumped right out: The Catholics in the five pews in front of me.

Properly speaking, this was not one of my reasons for becoming a Catholic, but it helps explain why I remain one, and why I return to the same seat each morning. When you sit in the same spot every day, facing the altar, facing God, the people in front of you—whom you embrace with a single gaze as you look over them toward the celebrant—become dear to you. Together with them, sitting, standing, kneeling in praise of the Creator, I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church. Together, we are branches on one vine. Being alone in Church can be serene and comforting, but ultimately being alone in church is an incomplete experience of my humanity. The Catholics in front of me complete me as a Catholic.

Let me begin with Frank. At daily mass, I often arrive by 6:30, half an hour early, and Frank is the only person in front of me at this hour. Frank was baptized, confirmed, and married at St. Mary’s; Frank is 82; and unless the Apocalypse comes first, Frank’s funeral mass will be said here someday, and I will be here, God willing. When I arrive at 6:30 Frank is on his knees, and until three or four minutes before the mass, he stays on his knees. I seldom see him move, although I know from kneeling beside him on occasion that his lips move silently as he prays. Frank has an Italian surname, like many in our parish, which also features descendants of Irish immigrants. Frank pronounces his surname with gusto and relishes pronouncing the Italian words for virtues that his father once stressed, like
pazienza, patience. I understand that Frank was a door-to-door salesman, who began with Electrolux; that he sold shoes and home improvement products later, neighborhood to neighborhood for some decades; that he studied all the sales masters, from Dale Carnegie to Og Mandino; that his wife does not come to daily mass with him because she is home caring for a disabled grandchild; that Frank helps out at home when he is not at mass.

Frank is our unofficial cantor for the communion song at daily mass, which he sings by referring to lyrics he has written out by hand and keeps tucked in his wallet, perhaps out of habit but more likely because, in his humility, Frank knows that he will forget someday. Each day he chooses one of two songs, just two. One begins: “I love you, Lord.” The other: “Oh, Lord, I am not worthy.” Some of us join in with him. At the end of mass, Frank often passes me on his way up the aisle, grinning his cockeyed, toothy grin and twinkling at me with more than a hint of shyness from behind thick glasses. He always has a positive word or phrase for me as he passes. Sometimes, he cocks his right fist, gives it an energetic pump, and says, “Go easy.” Frank is precious to me.

By the time mass begins, one or two other men are usually seated beside or just behind Frank. I understand that they sit there for the role Frank has played in their lives. Jonathan is a convert like me, and I imagine he shares my devotion to Frank. Bill is a cradle Catholic who fell away from the church and returned within the past decade. He has told me that Frank encouraged his return.

Jonathan has always intrigued me. About forty, single, living in an apartment just down the street from me, Jonathan is a slight, fit, angular man and very cerebral. Intelligence twitches behind wire-rimmed glasses. His lips are set in firm resolve beneath a neatly trimmed mustache. When I first saw Jonathan jogging on our street several years before I began attending mass, I noted that he was out in all weather, usually in a T-shirt and shorts despite snow or rain.

I understand that Jonathan works as a technician somewhere up on Route 495, Tech Alley, but that he prefers his extracurricular role as an independent scholar specializing in English writers of the Renaissance. About literature, religious or secular, I have seldom heard more informed commentaries, which Jonathan shares at our Saturday morning mens’ group.

Jonathan usually slips into the pew behind Frank a minute or two before the mass begins. Although he has probably just completed a run in his underwear, he is never out of breath. All summer long Jonathan cares meticulously and pro bono for the rectory garden, along with Rose, who doesn’t sit in front of me but who is as precious to me as if she did. Rose and her sister, Anna, sit in the back pew.

Although Frank and Jonathan and Bill and Rose did not cause my conversion to Catholicism, I believe that they validate it. As do Barbara and Warren. Barbara has dramatic curvature of the spine and Warren has Down syndrome, and when they sit one behind the other at the right edge of my field of vision at early Sunday mass, Jesus smiles and so do I.

Barbara walks to church in all weathers, usually bearing a staff. Barbara’s staff is about five feet long, which makes it taller then Barbara. The staff is festooned with an American flag, many ribbons, and one of those whirly plastic fans on top that kids make spin by running around the backyard at cookouts on the Fourth of July. Barbara sets herself down with a bit of rustling, unbuttoning nonmatching head gear that seems different every day. Like a punk girl, she seems to use more silver hairclips than her quantity of hair requires. Then, like Frank, like Jonathan, like me, Barbara pulls down her kneeler, folds her bony hands, and says a few words to God.

Warren usually arrives Sunday mornings even before Frank, though only on Sundays. Warren is Asian, perhaps Korean, and about 30, maybe 40. I know nothing about Warren’s family, if he has any, although he lights one or more votive candles before the Blessed Mother each Sunday morning. Perhaps he is an orphan. Warren carries a comic-book version of the Bible, which I have only seen from a distance when he flashes it proudly at me from four pews ahead. He wraps his hands in his rosary beads when he prays. I doubt he knows how to say the rosary, as his verbal skills are limited, though his smile is not.

Like Frank and Barbara, Warren smiles a lot. But then that’s true of many of the Catholics in front of me. Henry and Phyllis smile a lot, as do Carrie and her husband, another Frank. (I personally refer to the two Franks as the Italian sausage and the Polish one.) Carol-Lynn smiles broadly when she turns to offer me the sign of peace from under her Paddington Bear hat. Elizabeth has a beautiful smile, as does her husband, Michael, who is studying for the permanent diaconate.

* * *

Yesterday, a Saturday, I looked up after finishing my rosary at about ten minutes before the hour and was startled to see that the five pews in front of me were empty. Not even the Italian Frank was there; he was waiting in the sacristy as the lector for the day, while others usually populating my field of vision were either late or absent.

The church felt empty. The spark of life was missing. The altar candles were lit, the ribboned missal was open and in place: Yes, there would be a mass today. But for the next two or three minutes—or until Phyllis and Henry, Elizabeth and Michael, Barbara and others, and finally Jonathan dropped into place in front of me—I thought about silent meditation, about facing an object of worship alone.

When I was in college and turning away, pro forma, from everything about my upbringing, including Episcopal churchgoing, I became interested in meditation and eastern spiritual teachings. I read about zen and practiced some on my own. I studied yoga, using its asanas to stretch my body and calm my mind. I was introduced to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, which I continue to hold in high esteem. In many of these practices, silent, solo meditation has a central place.

For a number of years, without a church in my life, I practiced silent meditation at home, alone, squatted in my living room. Moving inward toward something realer whose full identity I seldom questioned adequately, I grew calmer, more collected, as the detritus of daily living fell temporarily away from me. Of course, no sooner did I rise from my squat than life began to stick to me again, like lint. Still, while I did not question it much, I think I believed that meditation alone, moving silently toward God—or at least toward a quality of myself that I recognized as more authentic—was enough.

Today, as a Catholic, I’m not sure that that is true.

In all my life, I have never belonged to a community outside my parents’ nuclear family or the one I have with my wife Katie where I have felt more welcome, more loved, more at home than I do in the Catholic Church, in my Catholic church, in my pew at morning mass. No class in school, no camp or club, no work environment has ever come close. Everywhere else there has always been another agenda; everywhere else motives can be secret and slippery; everywhere else there is fear, ambition, greed, backbiting, with of course some love and fellowship too.

But facing the altar with my morning group of friends, each as odd and broken as I am, I experience a wholeness and a broadened sense of myself that no lonely, silent meditation has ever provided. Both Franks and Jonathan and Barbara and Warren are all part of that. Without them, I could not be a Catholic.

In church, the Catholic church, we are all here for God, not to be seen by others as in upscale churches of my youth, but to be seen by Him. If we do not always see Him in return, then at least we speak to Him. We have this in common, my friends and I, and that makes them infinitely precious to me.

I will greet them warmly at my funeral.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Because of a Book So Beautiful

Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928 largely on the strength of her 1,100-page trilogy of Medieval Norwegian life, Kristin Lavransdatter. I recently read it for the first time on the recommendation of a friend in Communion & Liberation (CL). I have since recommended it to other friends and family. Most people don’t have the time for such a long read. Here’s my Letterman list explaining why I think you should make the time.

10. It starts out as a father-daughter story, and I am a sucker for father-daughter stories.

9. It is a work of fiction in which faith is central. Some would say faith is fiction, and therefore so what? But faith, as Fr. Giussani taught and as CL makes clear, is quite the contrary. Faith is founded in Fact.

8. Kristin lives in a world where family is central. If you want to understand what it is about the traditional family that the Catholic Church holds sacred, read what a binding force family was in Kristin’s world and then imagine how unhinged our world could be one day without it.

7. Kristin lives in a world where sin and its consequences are realities, and few in the novel are more sinful than Kristin. Through her experience, we can better appreciate the role of sin in our lives and our need for forgiveness.

6. Kristin’s devotion to her husband, despite his screaming failings, is deeply touching, and I say that as a husband with failings, some of them pretty loud, who could not have married a more forgiving woman. In fact (this is a corollary of sorts to #8), the depth of love in even the most troubled marriages in the novel is a testament to the enduring value of family.

5. The liturgical calendar alone is used to date events in the novel. A death never occurs on August 6. It happens “a week after St. Olav’s Day.” This, and countless other historical details, plunges the reader into a world as different and convincing as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

4. The latest English translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is an award-winner and makes the story go down easy, even though you need a program to keep the players straight. As in the Russian system of –oviches and –ovnas, most characters have surnames ending in –son or –datter honoring their fathers. Can you guess the name of Kristin’s father?

3. To elaborate on #10, Kristin’s father is a paragon of fatherhood. Undset was deeply devoted to her father, and that devotion shines through every page. Those of us who are fathers can only hope to be half the man Lavrans Bjorgulfson is. (If you’re still paying attention, you have the answer to #4.) There are models of motherhood here too.

2. Twice in the trilogy I wept openly for at least ten minutes—and not at the end, incidentally. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with any work of fiction. As events unfolded, I was astounded at the depth of even the secondary characters and of the secrets they had kept for hundreds of pages.

1. The end is a stunner, and as right as rain—worth every hour it took getting to.

Monday, August 17, 2009

For All the Saints

This is the post that launched the good ship YIMCatholic into the open sea of the Catholic blogosphere  one year ago yesterday. (August 17, 2009). As you can see, it garnered all of three comments, the first of which didn't show up until three weeks later. So,  from that shaky beginning, how do you explain the following?  One year,  645 posts, two partners, and 186,600  blog views later, YIMCatholic has managed to make it one lap around the track. Whew—Talk about a long lap!

I want to thank all of the readers, Google followers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc., and friends in the world of Catholic blogs, who have taken a few moments out of their precious time every day (or so) to stop by this space. I also would like to thank the many friends we have made along the way. They have helped to build this community, and bring it to where it is today. Kevin Knight of New Advent, Elizabeth Scalia, aka"the Anchoress", Deacon Greg Kandra of The Deacons Bench, Julie D. at Happy Catholic, and the many, many others (see blogroll in sidebar!) that have shared this journey with Frank, Allison and me; they have helped present our work to others so that we three could share our experiences of being Catholic with other Catholics, those in discernment, and those who just wonder why we continue to reflect on the most compelling question of all: Why I am Catholic?

Here's to hoping, and praying, that we will celebrate many more anniversaries for YIMCatholic into the future! Now, dear readers, to the post that started it all...

When I was in fourth grade at The Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota, I met my first Catholic. He was a boy in my class, who invited me over to his house one day. I don’t remember a crucifix or a Madonna; I don’t remember the term catechism or CCD being mentioned; I don’t even remember my friend’s name or what he looked like. All I remember is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, on the bookshelf above his head.

I understood, perhaps from a comment that he made, perhaps by noticing Butler, that my fourth-grade buddy, or at least someone in his family, knew about the saints and I didn’t. This gave me a sense of loss, the awareness that something was missing from my life. I know I didn’t envy his being Catholic. John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president in my fourth-grade year, and I distinctly remember declaring to someone, “I would never vote for a Catholic!”

Catholic was strange, alien, suspect in my Midwestern, Protestant world. Forty-seven years later, when I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, his first reaction was, “My mother would roll over in her grave.” Maybe that’s where the prejudice came from: his Methodist parents, although he himself never showed any anti-Catholic prejudice and was beamingly proud of my conversion. Yet despite the bias of my upbringing, I knew, even at age nine, that the saints were something else again.

We attended a Congregational church in our community outside Minneapolis. It was a beautiful white building with nothing on the walls except high, clear windows that let the Sunday morning light pour in. I remember no stained glass, no Stations of the Cross, no iconography whatsoever except for a naked cross at the head of the nave. Nothing spoke of the saints.

In Connecticut, where we moved when I was ten, my parents scouted for a church and ended at an Episcopalian congregation in the rolling countryside north of town. Here the walls were stone and the light streamed in from one side only, through large, sliding glass doors that overlooked an upscale garden. As I recall, there was stained glass above the altar, but no saints anywhere to be found

In Connecticut there was one intriguing set of symbols that I did not remember from our church in Minnesota. When I was twelve, I took confirmation classes, which qualified me to kneel at the sanctuary rail and take communion one Sunday a month—the statutory Episcopal limit, it seemed. Along the rail, there were cushions for kneeling that had been slip-cased in needlepoint by some industrious members of the altar guild. From left to right, against a blue knit background, were the traditional symbols of the twelve Apostles: keys for Peter, an X-shaped cross or saltire for Andrew, a carpenter’s square for St. Thomas, the gruesome saw with which St. James the Less was martyred, and so on. I must have asked about these symbols, and it was probably my mother who gave me the answer. She is knowledgeable about cultural history, and it was her mother, not my father’s, who would rattle teacups around Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota by converting to Catholicism after my grandfather died, when I was about twenty-five.

The symbols of the Apostles were like Butler to me: clues to hidden treasure, hints that behind the spare Protestant storyline of Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, there was a secret language that filled in the gaps, enlarging the simplistic narrative into an epic of adventure and glory. I was in my twenties before I understood that this epic was Catholic.

By that time, I had wandered, alternately on fire and lukewarm, through several years of wishing to live right. In this there was a certain amount of adolescent cluelessness, and in the psycholingo popular at the time, I thought I was experiencing an identity crisis. But my late adolescence was driven by something more: a search for spiritual exemplars and ways of living like them. If I had remained a churchgoer after leaving Greenwich for boarding school in tenth grade, I might have found my way to the saints much sooner. But in the everything-overboard mentality of those Vietnam War years, I probably would not have been satisfied with anything familiar. 

There was a Catholic parish in our neighborhood, St. Sulpice, where we eavesdropped on the mass in French. Around the corner from St. Sulpice was a Catholic bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in French. I read it then and still have it today on my bookshelf. En route to Madrid we stopped at Lourdes, where I was entranced by the story of St. Bernadette and a candlelit procession of thousands chanting the Hail Mary in three languages alternately. In Rome, St. Peter’s was our first and last destination, while Assisi was an Italian side trip that we made more than once. Here in a church basement I stared in stunned silence at the intact body of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare, covered only with a gauzy shroud. Every feature was clearly discernible beneath the veil eight centuries after her death. I almost thought I saw the gauze rise and fall with her breath

St. Francis was the saint who hit me over the head first, especially in Nikos Kazantzakis’s fictionalized biography and later in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Son, Sister Moon, in which Francis and Clare are flower children loping through sun-honeyed fields to the strains of English folk minstrel Donovan. Over the next thirty years, as my unchurched life rolled on, other saints grabbed my attention. Vita Sackville West’s biography of Joan of Arc was a thrilling discovery; I was astonished that Joan is no legend. The facts of her miraculous life are known in minute detail thanks to exhaustive testimony recorded at her several trials. When was it I realized that the central figure in the film that had hypnotized me since the mid-1960s was himself a saint, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons? As time went on, I saw that film fifteen or twenty times, in the cinema, in syndicated TV rerun, on video, on DVD.

For about a month in the mid-1990s, I attended daily mass at the Catholic church in our town. I sat through the liturgy without taking communion until one day I stood with the other parishioners, approached the priest bearing a chalice, and heard him say, “The Body of Christ.” Not knowing what to respond, I said nothing, held my hands before me as I had in the Episcopal Church, received the Host, and consumed it. I was immediately ashamed. When I got home, I asked my wife Katie, born a Catholic, what one is supposed to say when the priest says, “The Body of Christ.” She told me, “Amen.” At that moment, I realized that I would have to stop attending mass until I was ready to become a Catholic. I was an impostor before God.

I never thought about returning to daily mass for the next ten or twelve years. Then one Friday night, when Katie was out with girlfriends, I ate in a restaurant, had one drink too many, and found myself in a Borders bookstore. I went directly to the two-for-one table, thinking that I might find a birthday present for a friend whose birthday was coming up. The next moment I was in front of the book that changed my life. What was it about the book that I noticed first? The cover? A striking painting of ten men and women standing side by side with their hands posed prayerfully in front of them, a multiracial gathering, including one bearded fellow who held an upside-down cross in front of him. No, not the cover.
The author? James Martin, SJ. I knew that meant Society of Jesus, Jesuit.

No, what grabbed me was the title, My Life with the Saints. Francis: the rich boy turned mendicant, the holy fool for God. God asked Francis to “repair my church,” and did he ever! Joan: a shepherd girl who, like Bernadette of Lourdes, had visions that spoke to her, visions that told her to ride across war-torn France to lead the disgraced dauphin into battle and to witness the dauphin crowned king at Reims—maid turned militant turned martyr, who died at the stake with the holy name Jesu on her lips. Thomas More: husband, father, scholar, diplomat, statesman, poet, heroic defender of the Faith, Renaissance man turned martyr and saint, “His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first

Three dramatically different figures—beggar, warrior, statesman—one faith in common. These three saints had professed the same Credo, said the same prayers, received the same Body of Christ, and died with the same God on their minds, in their hearts, and on their lips. As I attended daily mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, and attended RCIA meetings in the old convent a block away, I was convinced that what had worked for these three saints, and for every other saint in Butler, would just have to be good enough for me.

Was it possible that each of the saints—not just Francis and Thomas and Joan, but every last one chronicled by Butler, to say nothing of the hundreds added since—was deluded or just plain wrong about the existence of God, the centrality of Christ, and the reality of human salvation through faith and works? That seemed unlikely to me, although I couldn’t prove otherwise

All that I knew for a certainty, and the certainty has only increased, is that morning mass is the best hour of my day. I do it—I am a Catholic—because nothing else is better for me. Two years on, nothing else seems to make much sense at all.