Saturday, October 31, 2009

Because the Poor and Meek are Blessed

I arrived at men's group Saturday in blue blazer, fresh shirt, gray slacks, brown Oxford shoes. I was on my way to an interview with an important man about an important project, and my clothes were important to match. I was pretty puffed up. By the time I left men's group, I felt cut down to size.

Men's group may be the butt of jokes, at least among some women in the parish, and I have made light fun of it in other posts, including this one. There is a certain amount of oxygen wasted nearly every week arguing issues that are fundamentally unarguable; there is some ruffling of feathers, some strutting and posturing as among fighting cocks.

But men's group also has a way of bringing me up against myself in a way that nothing else in my church week does, not even confession. And for that, as well as for the pure fellowship, I return as often as I can.

This is partly because Ferde is the founder and the sitting president of men's group—although next week some of us will put our names into a hat to replace Ferde, as well as Jonathan, our secretary. They have served long (and well) enough. It is time for a couple of other guys to preside, make the coffee (the president's chore), and organize the agenda (the secretary's).

Being at any table where Ferde presides is like sitting in the presence of an Old Testament judge. Ferde brooks no nonsense, and the meeting moves along purposefully under his gaze. It starts on time. It ends on time. Add to this the fact that Ferde is my dear friend but also in some ways my conscience, and when I slip up, as I have in a certain recent post (don't ask), Ferde lets me know it in uncertain terms. I am just unsure enough of my standing as a recent convert, also just proud enough of my standing as a recent convert with a blog, that I alternately quail and bristle when Ferde glares. Please don't tell him I said so.

But there's much more to men's group than Ferde. In some ways, it's like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, without Snow White (Ferde does not qualify, just look at that picture again). Grumpy, Doc, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Sleepy are all very much in evidence. This week, having been up since 3 a.m., I was Sleepy, but I can be any of the seven on any given Saturday.

A better analogy, however, is the Disciples at the Sermon on the Mount: poor, mournful, meek, hungry, thirsty. This is us: a group of utterly ordinary men, in ordinary clothes (except for me this Saturday), struggling with the basic human efforts of listening, sharing, and accepting each other's foibles—all the while seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. 

This week the presenter was Bob, a man I have grown increasingly fond of, largely because we attend School of Community together on Friday evenings (the meeting of Communion and Liberation in our parish). We also see each other frequently at daily mass. Bob's topic was grandiose, The Nature of Human Evil, but his presentation was anything but. It was humble (in the finest sense of the word), it was grippingly personal, and it was interrupted by an unforgettable moment of emotion that charged the church basement where we meet with an undeniable force. It was powerful theater, completely unpremeditated, and you could just feel the entire table around which we sat grow smaller as each man's attention focused in on Bob and what he was expressing eloquently.

I pride myself on my presentations at men's group, with pride being the operative term. I have spoken on St. Thomas More, St. Joan of Arc, the Carthusians, Dorothy Day, the Turin Shroud, Pope Benedict, and this blog. My presentations are polished, like my shoes this morning. They are crisp, like the crease in my trousers.

But every one of them has fallen short of the humanity we all experienced this morning. Bob is a man seemingly without pretensions, who once studied for the priesthood but chose the vocation of family instead. In whose presence this morning I felt briefly the glow of goodness and the grace of my own fleeting humility.

I'll be back next week, though I'm not sure yet whether to put my name in the hat. It is a big responsibility, filling Ferde's shoes, and I am not being ironic.

Friday, October 30, 2009

To Become a Child Again

This morning, by chance, by grace, I remembered again why I am a Catholic. I can hear the chorus: More than 80 posts in 10 weeks about YIM Catholic and you can't remember? Dear Webster, Are you losing your mind?! The short answer to which is, there's remembering and there's remembering.

Jesus tells us that unless we become like little children, we're going to have trouble storming the gates of heaven. Problem is, we all become "adults" in the faith so fast, even us converts. Everything gets old. Routine sets in. But this morning I was a child again, thanks to my never-failing friend Ferde.

At St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, we have three regular adult altar servers for morning mass, but one is in her ninth month of pregnancy and another recently broke her arm. So Frank, the third morning server, suggested that Ferde and occasionally Webster fill in. This means training for Webster, so this morning, Ferde—who usually serves only for funerals and other special occasions, why waste his talents as a lector?—walked me through Altar Server 101: where everything is kept in the sacristy, where to set it in the sanctuary, when to light the candles and turn on the overhead lights, and so on.

Then, and this was the beauty part, to watch Ferde closely while he went through his paces during mass, I sat on the Epistle side of the nave, not in the sixth row on the Gospel side, where I routinely sit. Here, closer to St. Joseph (left), I had a better angle on the action.

The freshness, the beauty, the naked thrill of learning to be a Catholic all came back to me, in a series of flashbacks to my first days in this church when, even before I entered RCIA, I sat on this side of the nave—until my troubles with Fr. Charles's accent sent me over under the pulpit, where I could more easily read his lips.

I used to come very early, when the church is dark and only Flo and Frank and two or three others are here, each alone in his or her quiet conversation with God, telling the beads, silently moving the lips. I had come early again this morning, to be schooled by Ferde, and even after the lesson, there were still twenty minutes to go before seven o'clock mass by the time I had settled on the Epistle side. This morning, I felt traces of that predawn stillness I had once felt when I arrived, a newcomer, at six-fifteen or even six o'clock.

I pulled out my rosary beads and I remembered: Two years ago, my only experience of the rosary was a memory of joining in with chanting thousands at Lourdes nearly forty years ago. Two years ago, I still thought that the second half of the Hail Mary began "Hail, Mary," instead of "Holy Mary." I knew nothing about the Mysteries we are invited to meditate on as we pray. I had yet to memorize the "Hail, Holy Queen" or the "Oh, my Jesus." But for some reason, on my second or third morning in this church, Father Barnes (left) spoke of the rosary from the pulpit, urged us to say the rosary daily, and said, "If you don't know how, Google it."

I Googled it. Then I went to and bought a rosary with wooden beads, something like this one. And I bought a couple of booklets on the rosary, this one, I think, and this one. And I waited excitedly for the UPS driver, the way I once awaited a shipment of Sea Monkeys.

These details don't really matter. What mattered today—again—was the sudden inrush of innocence I experienced, the joy again of becoming Catholic. When and where did I start to lose that? Definitely by the time I considered myself too busy with an important book project to arrive at mass much more than five minutes before the hour. But probably long before that. By pieces, by tiny pieces.

I have to start coming early to mass again, though I'm sure even this will become old. I'm going to have to start tricking myself somehow. Or making extra efforts. Or somersaulting up the aisle to my pew, while chanting a Hail Mary. I'm not sure what will keep the child inside me alive so that I can continue to live my faith with the joy and purity I once experienced every morning. But I'm going to do my best to figure it out.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Because of Joan of Arcadia VI

There is a moment in season 1, episode 9 of “Joan of Arcadia” that chills me to the bone. Joan is in history class; the subject is the Hundred Years War; the teacher flashes an image of Joan of Arc on the screen. Joan Girardi, typical teen, looks up with a sudden shock of recognition: Me—a saint—the same?!

This moment gets at the essence of this show and why we care about saints, too. For this moment, a saint is not a story from a book, not even a real person whose exploits are too far above modern-day Joan to matter. For this moment, the saint is Joan's sister. The saint is Joan, the saint is Joan herself.

This is why the saints matter. This is why this silly melodrama about a teenage girl who talks to God still matters to me.

I suspect this episode (“St. Joan”) or the one before it (“The Devil Made Me Do It”) ran during November sweeps. Because with these two stories, the series really hit its stride, taking on questions too serious for most family-night TV watching in contemporary America. What a pity.

In episode 8 (“The Devil Made Me Do It”), God poses an impossible dilemma for Joan. Appearing as a power-walking woman whom Joan meets on her way to school, God tells Joan to help out with the high school art show. The reason seems harmless enough: “Be more physically active!” God chirps. “A happy outlook is all about endorphins.” The Sermon on the Mount it's not. But when Joan walks into the art room, God walks in, this time as a security guard, and says He would rather Adam's art was not part of the show.

Adam is Joan's lovable friend, a talented abstract sculptor whose precocious work is all done in memory of his late mother. God asks Joan to see that Adam's work is not part of the show? How could that be just? Why would God do that? For the remainder of the show—which includes a surprise encounter with Grace's rabbi (!) father (who knew Grace was Jewish?!)—Joan has to wrestle with a key question: Would God ever tell her to do something evil? If not, how can Joan know that God is God, and not the devil in disguise?

The rabbi gives one answer : Our own inclination to evil, he says, comes between us and God. This inclination thrives on "moral confusion." What to do? "Confuse the confuser."

The priest who has been counseling Joan's mother has a different take:

Joan: So the devil really exists?
Priest: Yes, but one of his tricks is to get people to believe he doesn't exist. Or to take on the guise of our Lord. 
Joan: The devil imitates God?
Priest: In essence. 
Joan: Is he any good?
Priest: Very good. In fact, in the Book of Revelation it tells us that when the Antichrist first appears, the godly may be fooled. 
Joan: Yeah, like when you first hear Dave Matthews and think he might be good, but he's not. 
Priest: I don't know who that is. 

In the end, Joan simply does not know how to follow God's directive. When Adam wins the art show and sells his piece for $500, he decides to use the prize as seed money to leave school for a full-time art career. Joan realizes this is a terrible mistake, that Adam is not mature enough yet, that he will be lost. She goes to the art room and smashes Adam's sculpture. Adam remains in school (good), but Adam says he will never be Joan's friend again, if he ever was (bad).

A final encounter with God (the power-walker again) provides the complex moral of the story:

Joan: I'm having second thoughts about you.
God: It's called a crisis of faith. It's all right. It's not really faith if there's no crisis. Faith is an act of will, not a feeling.
Joan: How do I know you're not the devil? . . .
God: I understand you're confused, but there are no dilemmas without confusion, there's no free will without dilemmas, and there's no humanity without free will. 
Joan: You know, I don't understand what you're saying. It's all just blah, blah, blah. . . . 
God: You're confused because I asked you to do something you thought was wrong.
Joan:  I tried talking Adam out of it. I tried buying it. I tried stealing it. What else is there? You wanted me to smash it?
God: Don't blame me for your failure of imagination. What you have to ask yourself is, what are you going to do now? Every new decision is another chance to do the right thing. You don't get that from the other side.

Episode 9 (“St. Joan”) presents another central question in our search for God—not what if God is the devil in disguise, but what if faith is delusional? Joan's history teacher asserts that while legend has it that Joan of Arc talked to God, “Sigmund Freud would have given Joan’s parents a different explanation: paranoid schizophrenia with a messianic complex.” For the rest of the episode, while a plot involving the history teacher unfolds, Joan will repeatedly ask herself, "I'm not crazy, am I?"

Tree-surgeon God tells Joan, a C student, to get an A on her next history test. As usual, Joan takes God at his word and reads several books on Joan of Arc to prepare. When Joan gets an A+, evil vice principal Gavin Price demands that she retake the test, because she must have cheated. Grace Polk (feminist firebrand, daughter of Rabbi Polanski) takes Joan's case to the barricades, organizing a student strike over this terrible injustice. Joan gets swept up in the strike—until God intervenes.

God: About this revolution, cut it out. This wasn't part of the plan.
Joan: What do you mean? I'm taking a stand. It's perfect. 
God: You do know the end of Joan's story. . . . 
Joan: They don't burn people anymore, do they? Especially not kids?
God: I'm not really here to discuss martyrdom with you, Joan. Like most things having to do with me, it's complicated. Retake the test. 
Joan: What?!
God: Retake the test. . . . Here's the thing you need to learn from the martyrs, Joan: They did it the hard way. That's what I'm asking of you.

God's intervention makes for a minor miracle. Joan's history teacher, we learn, gave up a promising music career to go into education, but he began "mailing it in" years ago, "a teacher's greatest fear."

Teacher: Before this event, I was going to quit. This was going to be my last year. It was causing me a lot of pain. I was surrendering in defeat, like the French at Agincourt, floundering in the mud of my students' indifference. But I made you care about history, Miss Girardi. I don't know how I did it, but I did, and that's the whole point! You inspired me to take back my crown. I thank you.
Joan: You have no idea how incredibly cool this is. 
Teacher: Oh, yes I do. 

Next week: “Drive, He Said” and “The Uncertainty Principle”

To Read this Entire List of Catholic Fiction!

Thanks to Karen for forwarding this list of Catholic fiction from Amazon, in response to my post earlier today. Your further comments are welcome here or there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Survey #3: Because of What Catholic Fiction?

A few weeks back I asked readers to cite poems that have inspired them. The results, summarized a few days later, sent me off in search of verse by Donne, Thompson, Yeats, and Auden. Next, I asked for hymns, and because my knowledge of music is even poorer than my knowledge of poetry, I let the comments at the bottom of this post serve for summary.

It's time for Catholic fiction. Having explained why I found Kristin Lavransdatter moving and Brideshead Revisited seriously amusing, I am now on the hunt for inspiring fiction written by Catholics. Any Catholic fiction will do, as long as it inspires, as long as it makes a man or woman say, "Yeah, a Catholic wrote that, and I'm proud to say I'm a Catholic too."

Meanwhile, I'm going to settle down with a library copy of In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden, because two of you recommended it today.

Because the Holy Ghost Over the Bent World Broods

I was really, seriously thinking about throwing this blog overboard a couple of days ago. It's a long story, but I wrote the short form to a friend last night: I have been trying to navigate past shoals inner and outer. It is hard to avoid capsizing a tiny vessel like this. You want to keep it real, but you have to keep it confidential as well, all the while holding your inner demons at bay. We all have them, I imagine. I know I do. I know it now.

Enough mystery: Yesterday morning, I was really down about it all—loving the writing, hating much else about the process. I had sworn to at least one beloved person in my life: That's it! Final post! I've had it. Then I received an e-mail from an American woman I will call Roberta.

Roberta wrote me a few weeks back about her struggles with the Church, which were effectively political. She loves the Church, but can't understand the attitudes of many within the Church. Yesterday morning, as I was writing my blogger's suicide note in my mind, Roberta wrote that she had begun attending daily mass again—because of this blog. I was flabbergasted. Then I began blubbering.

My poor daughter Martha: She and I had a 1 pm phone appointment to discuss a book project we are co-authoring, but the moment I said hello, she knew I was in trouble. By that time, sandbagged by Roberta and beset with memories of my father, together with missing my daughters, and so on and so on in a sort of emotional avalanche, I was a basket case. Fortunately, Martha understands her dad pretty well.

But really: What do you call that force that sends that e-mail from Roberta just when it is most needed by a hysterical male blogger halfway across the country? I'm just crazy enough, just Catholic enough to think that you call it the Holy Spirit, which in Hopkins's beautiful poem

. . . Over the bent 
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To Spend the Rest of My Life Reading Books Like This

During my 40 years in the wilderness, reading was a mostly desultory pursuit. I went through a Dickens kick, a Civil War period, a David Foster Wallace frenzy, and a time of pure adoration for Norman Maclean. But there was no aim, no theme to my reading. It was like belonging to a Book-of-the-Month Club in which each season's selections are chosen at random. By contrast, in the two years since I entered RCIA, I have read almost nothing but Catholic subjects. I'm pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life doing more of the same.

And yet if you had told me five or ten years ago that Catholicism was intellectually appealing, I'm not sure I would have followed. I thought of it as devotional, as something you do. I saw all those Catholics crossing Cabot Street on their way into Mass every Sunday and I thought rosary—confession—novenas (whatever those were). I was married to a Catholic (still am through God's grace and Katie's graciousness), but I had no idea what it might actually be like to be a Catholic.

I certainly never imagined it would be like the most exciting week in my life, the week I still dream about frequently: my first week as a freshman in college. All those books, and all the time in the world to read them! Forget Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the latest essay in First Things. What I love is, all that Catholic fiction! Some I have read: Kristin Lavransdatter, the Father Brown mysteries of Chesterton, selected stories by Flannery O'Connor, Mariette in Ecstasy. But so many I still have left to read: anything by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Chronicles of Narnia, and until today at lunchtime, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. 

Webster Discovers America! I know I am probably one of the last adult Catholics in the old British Empire who had neither read nor watched Brideshead Revisited until today. I finished the book at one o'clock. Tomorrow the DVDs arrive from Amazon.

A book like Brideshead makes me tickled to be a Catholic. Several readers of this blog suggested it to me, as had a couple of Catholic friends previously, but somehow I associated it with everything overly serious about Masterpiece Theater. Jeremy Irons never appealed to me, although he was pretty funny as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. ("You're a very strange man, Mr. von Bulow!" "You have no idea.") It was finally George Weigel's writeup in Letters to a Young Catholic that sent me out to Borders looking for Brideshead. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it is a "Catholic novel" that I wanted to begin re-reading the moment I had finished the last page. Though I'm lazy enough to wait for the DVDs.

What kind of Catholic novel is Brideshead Revisited? A very sneaky one. You're nearly a quarter of the way through it before Waugh offers any details about the religion of the family at the heart of the novel, the Marchmains, whose country seat is known as Brideshead. On page 86 in my edition, the narrator says of his Oxford chum Sebastian Marchmain, "Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear."

If Waugh was in any sense evangelizing why did he ever pick such an unorthodox family as Catholic exemplars? Sebastian—a confirmed drunk who carries a stuffed animal around Oxford with him—is not only the most eccentric but, for narrator Charles Ryder, the most compelling of the Marchmains. It is Ryder's love for Sebastian (love, apparently, in all its forms) that leads him to Brideshead and his encounter with Catholicism. Though he doesn't realize that this is what he is encountering until almost the very end of the novel—after he has fallen in love with Sebastian's sister Julia and the two have divorced their respective spouses in order to marry. By this time, Sebastian has died of disease somewhere in Africa, tended by monks who refused him admission as anything other than a menial laborer. His younger sister, Cordelia, who may still end in a convent, reports that Sebastian ended his life somewhere between an alcoholic stupor and spiritual ecstasy. 

In the final chapter of the narrative (a prologue and epilogue frame the main story), Lord Marchmain, father of the family, comes home to die. Here—for the three other English-speaking Catholics who have not read Brideshead—I will leave off telling the tale and beg you to read it for yourself. The love between Charles and Julia must bow to a greater Love, and there is perhaps a suggestion in the epilogue that, despite a deep skepticism flashed throughout the novel, Charles himself may be on his own winding road to Rome. There are better, deeper surprises.

I suspect that the majority of those who have loved this novel have not even been Catholics. George Orwell was one of them, calling Waugh “as good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable positions.” But for the Catholic minority of readers, few books could be as entertaining, thought-provoking, or pride-inducing. At least that's how I felt: seriously amused, perplexed, and proud.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Because a Tornado is Coming

Katie and I rarely go to the movies, so when I proposed a movie date Saturday night and she counterproposed the new Coen Brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” I jumped at the chance. I know it’s hardly the latest film to open, but I no longer imagine I'm in the cultural avant garde. Thank God.

Spoiler alert: It's hard to talk about this film without discussing the ending, exactly the way you can't look seriously at your life without thinking about how it will end.

Catholic alert: This is a Jewish movie, which may be why it has received scant mention in the Catholic press. This is a pity, because this is a serious movie about religious faith and culture. The filmmaking brothers Coen are children of Abraham. Whether they are in any sense observant Jews today would be hard to say, judging by the movie. Yet from the opening scene—a prologue in Yiddish, involving a dybbuk who appears in an Eastern European shtetl of a previous century—we are clearly dealing with a film made by Jews about Jewish culture.

Then why did it hit so close to home for me, a Catholic convert?

From the shtetl of the prologue we move to the suburbs of America circa 1967, or shortly after Jefferson Airplane released their first major hit, “Somebody to Love,” which has a pivotal place in the film. The serious man is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor teaching Heisenberg’s uncertainty priniciple, whom we first see undergoing a chest x-ray. We soon learn that Larry is coming up on both his tenure hearing and his son's bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, Larry's life is falling apart. His wife has announced that she is leaving him for another man, Sy Ableman. Sy Ableman?! he asks. We've been having problems, you and I, his wife says. Yeah, but Sy Ableman?!

Sy is a newly sensitized modern man, sporting a full beard, a natty tam o'shanter, and powder-blue sportswear. He arrives at Larry's house for a man-to-man talk bearing the anesthetics of contemporary life: good wine and psychobabble. His first gesture is to hug Larry. In a later scene, where Larry's wife is present, Sy places his hairy hand thoughtfully on Larry's folded fists, while offering self-help pablum about the impending divorce. Larry is too kind, too confused to do what he obviously wants to do: lay Sy out flat.

Larry moves out while waiting for the divorce proceedings, which means moving into the Jolly Roger Motel with his troubled brother Arthur. From this point on, Larry is looking for understanding, clarity, certainty, and he looks to his religion in the form of a succession of rabbis, working his way up the ladder from a clueless junior rabbi through a self-important CEO type toward the ultimate soothsayer, Rabbi Marshak, an old bearded sage reminiscent of the dybbuk of the prologue.  Larry never gets in to see Rabbi Marshak, who is too important or just too old to see anyone but the newly bar-mitzvahed.

So Larry's religious culture gives him no answers; even his son's bar mitzvah will be a travesty, when the son shows up stoned. And yet. Circumstances alone start working in Larry's favor again: Sy Ableman is killed in a car accident; Larry gets tenure after days of nail-biting; and it seems that with Sy out of the way, Larry's marriage may even be salvageable. And yet. The wheel turns again, and in the penultimate scene, Larry gets an urgent call from his doctor asking him to come in right now to talk about the results of that chest x-ray. In the final scene, Larry's son's Hebrew class is alerted to an approaching tornado. As the tornado bears down and the students watch helplessly from the schoolyard, the Hebrew teacher fumbles with the keys to the storm shelter. It is uncertain whether he can save the class from violent death.

Recently I have been hit with uncertainty. A situation that I thought was ideal has begun showing cracks. It's nothing as serious as my health or Katie's, but it's something deeply unsettling. I thought everything was going so well. And yet. Perhaps not. Watching Larry Gropnik react fearfully to the changing circumstances of his life, I was reminded uncomfortably of my own. I squirmed in my seat at the cinema. I do not doubt that many Jews are buoyed by their faith. Larry, however, was not, and in that wonderfully symbolic final scene, I saw that the teacher who appeared to have the keys to salvation was, in fact, unable to lead his students to safety.

A tornado is coming. Probably it will arrive unannounced, much like the urgent call from Larry's doctor, or like my father's diagnosis of melanoma last year. Who will be holding the keys to the shelter when that storm hits, when that phone call comes? In my tradition, St. Peter holds the key: to the Church, to the Kingdom. But will the door open for me?

That depends, I believe, on faith, on the grace of faith. Is my faith strong enough to stand in the winds that will blow? Is it even strong enough today, in the mild breeze that ruffles my hair?

“A Serious Man” is a serious movie, and I would recommend it for any Jew or Catholic with serious questions, or any atheist for that matter. Just don’t expect to hear the answer from the lips of Rabbi Marshak.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Because I Can’t Do It Alone

I have been talking with a dear friend who is in conflict about something. Like someone with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, he can't understand why the conflict persists. Late into a recent night, I finally said, “But man, you can't do it alone!” And there it was: another reason why I am Catholic.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Because Some Words Make My Heart Vibrate

I often lie awake in the small hours of the night. It’s a soon-to-be-old-man thing. Last night, both to get back to sleep and to avoid waking Katie, I read a Kindle book by the teeny light of my iPhone. Tonight, after thrashing around wondering whether it’s time to start posting again, I'm writing about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thanks to Good People Like Father Danielsen

I received an e-mail last evening from a priest living in a foreign country whom I will call Father Danielsen. He and I have corresponded off and on since he discovered this blog a few weeks back, and his comments have been uniformly supportive. I feel very grateful for his comments and for his support, and he has not been alone in offering them. Many people close to me—and quite far from me too—have responded joyfully and supportively.

But last night Father Danielsen did something different. He told me to slow down. It was my own confession in this post that this blog “has taken over my life” that did it. Here's what he wrote in response:

Your blog has been a joy to read, but I enjoy it most when you keep to the basic score: “Why I am Catholic.” That was a very genial idea. You are at your best when you share the simple things that you ENJOY and APPRECIATE about being Catholic, the things for which you discover yourself to be profoundly grateful. But when you started linking to other blogs, right and left, I found myself thinking: “Oh, oh, it's happening!” I don't read your blog to follow links to other blogs. I read yours because in your writing about the people around you in your parish, I can see my own lifelong Catholicism and the Church herself in fresh and simple ways. On a number of occasions what you wrote has made me smile and sent me off on a reverie—remembering people and places and events from my own life—until my screen saver kicked in. Please don't feel that you HAVE to keep this going at any cost. Don't feel that you absolutely have to post one or two or three different things each day. You have heard the term “burnout” before, haven't you? No one who suffers from it ever expected to. I don't want to read: “Folks, that's it! I'm quitting this blog because I need to get my life back!” I'd be happy to see you post once a week or less if it’s a genuine “Why I am (happy to be) Catholic” moment.

I shot back a sort of weak rebuttal combined with thanks, which of course is a contradiction. And Father Danielsen’s comments have been rattling around inside me ever since. Especially because I have spent valuable time today meditating on my “saint of the day,” Hilarion, a spiritual son of St. Anthony of the Desert, and believe me, I can't find one honest reason to write about him. Hilarious, wouldn't you say?

I started this blog with a purpose—to sort out the reasons why I am a Catholic and to communicate them clearly and effectively to people I love, especially my wife and children. When did I start going off track? Probably when I received the first praise from “someone important.” But certainly when I started tracking response to the blog with “the best software available.” And yet—the purpose remains, along with my love of being Catholic.

So here’s my proposal, gentle reader. I will not be posting every day, or every other day necessarily. I will post when the Spirit moves me, and I hope, I pray that I will not take that promise lightly. I will post when something inside me says, “I love being a Catholic, and I want people to know why, and here it is . . . ” Then I will do my best to tell you why.

And by the way—for all those, like Ferde, who think my Friday posts on “Joan of Arcadia” are throwaways, you have another thing coming. Because I will continue posting on Fridays about JoA! And any other day I have a good reason to be Catholic.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to send me their heartfelt reasons for being Catholic, I will review them and post those that I think can make a difference.

Until the next time the Spirit moves . . .

Monday, October 19, 2009

Thanks to Fragments of Christian Culture That Always Stayed with Me

From age 15 to my mid-50s, I rarely attended church, and still I'm pretty sure that God never abandoned me. Even when I found myself bobbing on an open sea without a life jacket, tiny bits of prayer and praise came to me like driftwood, like the coffin to which Ishmael clung. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," the Doxology, the Our Father, the First and Greatest Commandment: These were four pieces of my Christian past that stayed with me.

At boarding school I studied German in my senior year. I loved the sound of the German language, still do. Some call it harsh, rough, crude; I find it beautiful. It might be that it makes my Anglo-Saxon roots ring. (FYI, Bull is not an Italian name, nor is Heffelfinger, my grandmother's maiden name.) For some reason, whenever I studied a foreign language, I loved discovering the translations of my favorite English verses, which were more often the original words from which "my" English had been translated. In German class I learned the original German of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God": Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, a hymn written by Martin Luther (left) himself.  I can't remember it all now, but I'm quite sure that I learned at least one full verse of this Protestant power hymn and spent a good week or two striding around campus in the manner of cracked adolescents everywhere, beating out four-four time with my right hand and muttering the hymn to myself with a fabulous faux German accent. It was consoling; it was, to use an overused term properly, empowering. I still feel the power of that hymn anytime I hear it, inside or outside my head. (This version is both grandiose and fruity enough to allow you to picture the cracked adolescent I once was.)

Like most boarding school students, I went home on vacation from time to time, and on these occasions, I went to Episcopal church with my parents—now more as a tourist than as a native. I distinctly remember a moment that always brought me back to childhood experience of the church: when we sang the Doxology, which if I recall correctly was sung as the offertory was presented:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host; 
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Forty years later, at my father's funeral in that Episcopal church, I was brought to tears by nothing so much as by this Doxology. We did not bless ourselves, of course, when we came to the final statement of the Trinity, but I think it was this line, above any other, that led me to ponder the meaning of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (I still prefer Ghost = Geist, a good, strong Germanic word.)

I took a year off during college to travel through Europe at the beginning of what became, for lack of a better term, the eastern spirituality phase of my life. Here, in Paris, I studied French at the Alliance Française for several months, and as I had done in German class, I learned the local version of a favorite piece of devotion, in this case the Our Father. Notre père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifiée— It struck me as both curious and comforting that in French one addresses God with the intimate, personal form of You—tu, toi, ton, ta, tes—instead of the formal vous, vôtre. It brings God closer. What I remember most vividly is sitting at a particular sidewalk café, where we often sat late into the night, silently repeating to myself, Nôtre pere, qui es aux cieux . . . It was an odd devotion in those days of studying Buddhism, sufism, and related belief systems. But it returned to my consciousness regularly, and it strengthened me.

Back in college after a year off, I went through a period when the First and Greatest Commandment—Though shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength—was a sort of "mantra" for me (again because eastern thought systems seemed more congenial in those years). It amuses me now, and also pains me, that I never seemed to move on to the Second Commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I'm still working on that one. But while I do so, God, in His full triune form, yet close enough to hug—a mighty fortress and an intimate friend at the same time—is here with me, from moment to moment, each time I remember.

Because of Mary, and Ammie

Back on September 8th, we celebrated the Birthday of Mary. It is not possible to say "Why I Am Catholic" without a word or two about Mary. In fact, I have a word or two about two Marys.

First, the Blessed Virgin and a couple of personal thoughts. I spent long enough time in the Congregational and Episcopal churches to understand that there is a certain prejudice against our devotion to Mary.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

For All the Saints: Isaac Jogues

My father tried his best to make a man of me, playing tackle football with my brother and me on the living room carpet and encouraging us to savor the great outdoors, of which there was much to savor in the Minnesota of our childhood. But at age fourteen, I set off on a six-week canoe trip in the north woods, and my Paul Bunyan period came to an abrupt end.

There were two terrors I remember from that trip: the leeches that found their way into our boots during a portage and the gauntlet we had to run if we happened to utter the forbidden word cocoa. The latter was a longstanding tradition on this trip: The sweet, warm, brown stuff in a cup was referred to as hot choc and never cocoa. Say the forbidden word and you had to run buck naked down a line of paddle-wielding mates. Fortunately, I never transgressed, though I lived in mortal fear of this sin. 

I never returned to the north woods, nor have I ever been proud of my record as a backwoodsman. But memories of the experience give me a greater appreciation for the incredible hardships and literal torture suffered by Isaac Jogues, who with John de Brébeuf and companions are known collectively as the North American Martyrs. We celebrate these saints today, October 19.

Jogues was born in Orléans, France, about 160 years after Joan of Arc won her greatest military victory there. He, Brébeuf, and others became Jesuit priests dedicated to converting the indigenous tribes of New France, ministering to them in upstate New York and around the Great Lakes.

Quebec was short on Jesuits, so Jogues enlisted a lay assistant named René Goupil, who knew medicine. Together they set off into Mohawk country. Richard P. McBrien's Lives of the Saints picks up the story:

They were attacked by Mohawks, who bit off Jogues's fingernails or chewed his forefingers. Goupil was similarly abused. Thy were taken captive and brought to the Mohawk village. On the way, Jogues accepted Goupil's vows as a Jesuit. During a pause in the jorney, however, they were stripped and forced to run the gauntlet up a rocky hill. When they reached the village (located in present-day Auriesville, New York) on the bank of the Mohawk River, they were again forced to run the gauntlet, after which a squaw cut off Jogues's left thumb with a jagged shell. The men were then taken to a building where they were stretched out and tied to the ground while children dropped hot coals on their naked bodies. After three days of torture, they were handed over to the chief to act as his personal slaves. A few weeks later, Goupil was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on a child.

I gather that the gauntlet run by the brave men of New France involved tomahawks and not canoe paddles. An entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia continues with the story of Jogues:  

. . . he remained [in Auriesville] for thirteen months in slavery, suffering apparently beyond the power of natural endurance. The Dutch Calvinists at Fort Orange (Albany) made constant efforts to free him, and at last, when he was about to be burnt to death, induced him to take refuge in a sailing vessel which carried him to New Amsterdam (New York). . . . From New York he was sent, in mid-winter, across the ocean on a lugger of only fifty tons burden and after a voyage of two months, landed Christmas morning, 1643, on the coast of Brittany, in a state of absolute destitution. Thence he found his way to the nearest college of the Society [of Jesus]. He was received with great honour at the court of the Queen Regent, the mother of Louis XIV, and was allowed by Pope Urban VII the very exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass, which the mutilated condition of his hands had made canonically impossible; several of his fingers having been eaten or burned off [by his Indian captors]. He was called a martyr of Christ by the pontiff. . . .

And then? Jogues went back to North America to minister to the Iroquois and Mohawks! It comes as no surprise that the determined Jesuit was tortured and then tomahawked to death in October 1646.

Bruce Beresford's fine 1991 film Black Robe is apparently a fictionalized rendering of the Jogues story, with the requisite gratuitous love story between a lay French companion of the priest "Father Laforgue" and an Indian maiden. But at least it preserves the gruesome detail of a thumb being amputated with a shell.

I will be thinking of Isaac Jogues today and of the other patron saints of North America; of their courage and even more remarkable witness; and of a teenage boy who did everything in his power to avoid using the forbidden word cocoa.

(Sources: Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints; and the Catholic Encyclopedia, available on line at the New Advent web site)

For This Gift

Men's group was unusual yesterday morning. There were only eight of us present, but after the closing prayer no one moved. Usually we are closer to fifteen, and when Frank has finished leading a prayer to Michael the Archangel, most everyone stands. What explained the small turnout and people remaining in their seats? Maybe the weather. Maybe the subject of the meeting: this blog.

Our Christian life is contradictory: very private, yet on display for the world to see. Of course, a blog is like that, or at least this one is. I draw the line at very private matters, and I keep some names confidential. But I can't escape the obvious: this blog is a form of personal witness, whether I originally thought of it that way or not, and every day, in your comments and e-mails, as well as yesterday morning, at men's group, I experience the repercussions.

I talked at the meeting yesterday about how this blog began: as a sort of love letter to my wife and daughters, as well as a few friends. Who, after all, would find YIMCatholic in the haystack of the blogosphere? I recounted how, to my sincere amazement, I heard "out of the blue," within ten days, from Fr. James Martin, author of the book featured in my first post; and within another week from, arguably, the most influential writer in Catholic blogging, The Anchoress. (I got into a friendly tussle with her about my "mildlylefty" political leaning, but all in good fun.) Kevin Knight at New Advent started picking up my posts, and pretty soon I was in touch with Catholics around the world—still not in huge numbers but enough to know that my words were having an impact.

At the meeting, I talked in general terms of two e-mails received recently: one from a seminarian undergoing a vocational crisis in another country, one from a self-described politically conservative Catholic in turmoil because she finds herself in a parish she called "Democratic before Catholic." I told my men friends that each of these, and others, had written that my blog had "helped" them. This frankly astonishes me still. One member of the group, a former seminarian himself, explained that he understood "perfectly" how my words could have helped the seminarian. Later yesterday, this friend sent me a long e-mail in which the meeting was still echoing loudly.

Sooner or later, and I think the moment arrived yesterday, I have to come to terms with this thing that, as I confessed to my dear wife, "has taken over my life." This blog is now something I have to do. It is a gift, not necessarily a great one, but mine. And if I don't exercise it I will be failing to do what Eric Liddell insisted on doing in the film Chariots of Fire, about which I expect to be writing sooner rather than later.

His sister Jennie told Eric he was wasting his life training to be a runner. She wanted him to commit his life to a foreign mission, posthaste, just as their father had done. Eric protested (and I'm paraphrasing): "I believe God made me for a purpose. But Jennie, he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."

I feel a special sort of pleasure writing this blog, and it may even be His, though that's a presumption I won't make. I saw that pleasure reflected in the faces of my men friends yesterday morning, and I read its echoes in each comment (well, most comments!) and in each e-mail you so kindly send.

If nothing else, this blog has made me not just feel but know that I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church, that remarkable society of friends established on earth by Our Savior two thousand years ago, and that is one gift I cannot take lightly. If I am true to it, things will turn out fine, I'm sure.

Things turned out fine for Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. Insisting that he could not run in an Olympic heat on the Lord's Day, he was moved to another event, in which he won a gold medal in the Paris Olympics of 1924. He then served as a missionary for the rest of his life.

For All the Saints: Justus of Beauvais

Since today is Sunday, we are unlikely to hear much about St. Luke, whose feast is celebrated on October 18. So on day 2 of my new saint-a-day scheme I thought I'd look farther afield. With seven saints to choose from, according to this calendar, my attention was grabbed by St. Justus, surely the youngest cephalophore in Butler's Lives of the Saints.

According to the bio at Catholic OnLine, Justus was born in 278 "and lived at Auxerre, France, with his father. At that time, the persecution of Diocletian was in full force. Justus and his father went to Amiens to ransom a relative. While there, Justus was reported to the authorities to be a Christian magician, and soldiers were sent to arrest him. When confronted at Beauvais, Justus, who was nine years old, confessed that he was a Christian, and he was immediately beheaded. Legend has it that he then stood upright with his head in his hand, at which the soldiers fled."

There are a number of things that jump out at me.  First, this holy card, courtesy of an Italian web site, is not cephalophoric. A cephalophore is someone, usually a saint, who carries his own head in his hands. The saint of the holy card has his head where it should be.

The next thing that jumps out at me is, that's exactly the sort of thing a stage magician would do—carry his head in his hands. I know something about stage magic. For twenty-five years, as I've written previously, I was a member of "the world's largest resident stage magic ensemble." That this troupe is still performing right here in Beverly, Massachusetts, two blocks from my church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, is just one of linkages that makes my life so amazing to me.

For twenty-five years, more than half my adult life, I performed with this troupe, which has been successful enough to earn two pages in Time, ten pages in Smithsonian, and seven trips to the White House. I'm not making this up—although the longer I write this blog, the more unbelievable my own life seems to me. You can still see "Le Grand David," performing every Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, although you will not see me!

Butler writes about Justus:

His cult was very popular throughout north-western Europe; in Belgium it was centred on the abbey of Malmédy, where the monks were said to have obtained the martyr's body "for a good price" in the tenth century. In England King Athelstan gave Winchester the martyr's head in 924, but the monks at Auxerre claimed he had only a part of it. 

Monks wrangling over body parts is one of the things I find most endearing about the Catholic Church. But now another voice rises up inside and says, Wow, these people were deadly serious about this! And what—I know it's not likely—but what if it's true? What if a nine-year-old boy was so faithful that he gave himself up to martyrdom, less than 250 years after the death of Our Savior, or about as much time as separates me from Benjamin Franklin? Is it possible to imagine a Christian child doing that today? Is it so inconceivable—I know it's a "legend"—but is it so inconceivable that God could have so loved this child that he made him a sign to the world, giving him the strength to pick up his own head and, according to another account, tell folks where to bury his body?

I find it interesting that the book generally acknowledged to be the first ever published about the performance art we now call stage magic was The Discoverie of Witchcraft, written by Reginald Scot. If you own a first edition of Scot today (there are only a handful in existence), you are a wealthy person. Scot's book was published in 1584, while the Protestant Rebellion was in high season. Luther and Calvin were dead already, and the Council of Trent had concluded its business, but the tsunami of revolt had hardly run its course. At that particular moment in history, a book made its appearance which explained how miracles can be made to appear by human means. The 425 years since Scot have pretty much "demystified" the world, the secular world anyway. The Enlightenment has worked its magic, and instead of transubstantiation at the altar we have the transformation of water into wine on stage. Instead of Justus of Beauvais, we have Penn & Teller, who are the latest step in the demystification of the world. Not only can there be no real miracles in the world of P&T, but heck, even the fake miracles are stripped of the miraculous!

For myself, I prefer to imagine a nine-year-old boy in a Gallic outpost of the Roman Empire so entranced by Christ that he gave his life for his faith. The picking up of his head and the telling people where to bury the body—that's really small potatoes, isn't it?

(Sources for this post:, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Catholic OnLine, and as always, with gratitude, My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, S.J.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Because of My First Rosary, At Lourdes, Thanks to Cesareo

I said my first rosary 35 years before I owned a rosary. It was at Lourdes in the summer of 1971, in the company of the mentor of my early years, Cesareo Pelaez, who celebrates his 77th birthday today. When I wrote a post summarizing my first seven weeks of blogging, it struck me that I hadn't written about a whole list of "Cesareo moments." Lourdes 1971 is the first that comes to mind.

Cesareo moments were times when, long before I was a Catholic, Cesareo taught me about Catholicism. He did this not to evangelize but because, until he was slowed by a stroke four years ago, Cesareo was always teaching—even when you didn't want to be taught! And since he was raised in a Cuban hothouse of Catholicism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the Church and its culture tended to flow out of him like mother's milk. So if you traveled with him, as I did often in the early 1970s, you were forever seeing and hearing about Catholic stuff.

I thought about this yesterday when reviewing recent posts on Pat McNamara's excellent blog of Catholic history. I came upon Blessed Alexandrina Maria de Costa (left), and I thought, Cesareo told me about her, and I never believed him. What he told me was that a woman in Portugal had lived with nothing but the Holy Eucharist for food—for many years. I thought that sounded pretty far-fetched, and I stored it on my mental Catholic culture shelf somewhere between the Turin Shroud (in which I still choose to believe, despite evidence debunking it) and pieces of the True Cross (of which there are enough to reconstitute an entire redwood forest). I checked the dates in Pat's post: Blessed Alexandrina lived on the Eucharist alone from 1942 until her death in 1955. For Cesareo, this period spanned age ten to age twenty-three, or from before his confirmation until he was teaching at a Marist Brothers school in Santa Clara. Of course, any "phenomenon" like Blessed Alexandrina would have been bruited among the priests and nuns with whom Cesareo was in contact.

So, Lourdes—Cesareo and I traveled together for seven months in 1971, from February thru August. Sometime in May or June perhaps we arrived at this village on the French side of the Pyrenees. I'm sure there was a long build-up by Cesareo as our train snaked its way through the French countryside, but nothing could have prepared me for that experience. There are two episodes I most remember, one intimate, one grandly theatrical.

In 1971, there were in Lourdes, if memory serves, several hospitals or hospices for the care of invalids, thousands of whom come every year in hopes of a cure. On a beautiful late-spring day I was walking alone past one of these buildings when I noticed some kind of vehicle being unloaded and hospital sisters in full habits scurrying about. My attention must have been attracted, and I wandered closer when, suddenly, one of the sisters turned hopefully to me and asked, in French, if I could help for a moment. Mais bien sur! She gestured to follow her to the far side of the vehicle, then reached inside, and pulled out a child, whom she immediately placed in my arms, indicating that I was to carry the child up a flight of stairs. Attention à la tête! she said. Be careful of the head.

I looked down and only then fully realized what, I should say whom, I was facing. It was a hydrocephalic boy, with "water on the brain" and a terribly misshapen head. I was frankly shocked. But he was in my arms and there was only one place to go: up the flight of stairs. I cannot remember how much eye contact I made with the child, or whether I even said anything. I know I was trembling. I reached the top of the stairs and mercifully was met by another sister who quickly scooped the child from my arms with a simple Merci, monsieur. Feeling my own inadequacy and lack of charity more than anything else, I beat a hasty retreat. Nor did I "volunteer" again to help the invalids of Lourdes.

That evening, I said my first rosary. At least that's how I thought of it, though I was not holding beads and the rosary was said in French, with which I was only high-school-fluent. I did know the Our Father in French—Notre père, qui es aux cieux . . . —and could chime in pretty well every decade. But the Hail Mary was a work in progress. Yet none of the words mattered ultimately, because I was "saying my rosary" with (I'd estimate) twenty thousand other souls, most of whom held a candle as we processed together in front of the great church that has been built above the grotto where the Blessed Mother, referring to herself as the Immaculate Conception, appeared to St. Bernadette (left) in 1858.

I cannot reconstitute that experience enough to provide much more detail. I can only say that from that evening on, the rosary was impressed on my consciousness as something I wanted to experience more often. When your voice is joined with twenty thousand others, you understand that something far greater than you is praying when you say the words. There was a presence in the square in front of the church at Lourdes that evening, a presence I would pine for through many years to come.

Because of Joan of Arcadia V

When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with two things: death and popularity. This is one reason I like “Joan of Arcadia”: It moves from the ultimate to the banal and back again, and always in reference to God. One moment Joan is pondering final questions, the next she is wondering whether she will be a social pariah if she follows God's request and becomes a cheerleader. And always the solution is the same, the words we say in the Invitatory Psalm 95 each day: “Listen to the voice of the Lord.”

In episodes 6 and 7 of season 1, the theme of popularity precedes that of death, which is how most teenagers rank these issues. In “Bringeth It On,” God appears to Joan as a bearded homeless man, popping up from behind a trash can to tell her to try out for the cheerleadering squad at Arcadia High. For Joan, who usually hangs around with artist Adam Rove (left with Joan) and tomboy Grace Polk, this means “social suicide.” God replies with his usual practicality, “Tryouts are Monday.”

Meanwhile, Luke is wondering whether he might be homosexual. Sparks have been flying between him and Grace in AP chem, so when the willowy Glynnis asks Luke if he will be her partner for the science fair and Luke is slow to grab the opportunity, Friedman, Luke's buddy, leaps to the obvious conclusion: “You're hot for a lesbo. Skip the denial: You like a dyke, which means you just tested positive for the presence of gay.”

Luke is perturbed and refers this “big question” to older brother Kevin in a classic bit of JoA dialogue:

Luke: Does it mean I'm gay if I like a lesbian?
Kevin: Liking a girl is liking a girl, and who says she's a lesbian? Here's your only indicator: When you're alone, just passing the time, what do you like thinking about?
Luke: How to get past level 5 on Diablo.
Kevin: I mean, in the shower . . .
Luke (light dawning, deadly serious): Sometimes I think of Condoleeza Rice.

Joan's quandary is not so easily resolved but finally intertwines beautifully with the inevitable JoA police subplot. Dad, police chief Will Girardi, is investigating the case of a baby found alive in a dumpster. The trail leads back to Arcadia High and to a girl on the cheerleading squad. When she confesses that she ditched her newborn, she has to leave the school in tearful disgrace. The rest of the cheerleading team ignores her as trash herself. Only Joan stops to ask how she's doing. In the final cheerleading scene, at final tryouts, Joan offers a hip-hop cheer exposing the hypocrisy of the other girls.

Outside school, Luke asks Grace to be his partner for the science fair, and the flirtatious chemistry between them flares—

Grace: I don't plan ahead. Ask when it's closer.
Luke (beaming): You're saying it's possible?
Grace: Yeah, if you stop acting like such a loser.

When I was in ninth grade, we read John Gunther's "Death Be Not Proud," the true story of the death of Gunther's teenage son by brain tumor. So I smile at the title of episode 7, "Death Be Not Whatever."

At career day at the high school, Joan stops at a booth for the airline industry and talks with Stewardess God. For once, the Almighty's instructions are a bit vague. Instead of "Get a job in the bookstore," or "Have a yard sale," God advises Joan: "You're going to be in the position to help someone. You're going to have to pay attention. Look at behavior. Not everyone knows how to look for help."

Not every TV show cites Kübler-Ross or quotes Kierkegaard, which is another reason to like JoA. While Joan is pondering God's advice, her mother, Helen, is agonizing over Kevin's paralysis, caused by a car accident. She consults a priest, who advises her to read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's classic work on the five stages of grief. Helen: "But no one died." Priest: "Kevin didn't pass on, but all of you experienced a kind of death." The scene in a luncheonette closes with Kierkegaard, courtesy of the priest: "The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have."

Joan's pal Adam is moping, complaining that he "hates November." Joan and Grace think he's just being his spacey self. But when Joan takes a babysitting job, looking after Rocky, a death-obsessed little boy who is dying himself, she ultimately learns why Adam is blue. Rocky's mom explains to Joan that Rocky has an aggressive form of cystic fibrosis and is unlikely to survive his next infection. In the next scene, Rocky takes Joan to the cemetery, his favorite hangout.

Joan: When you said a fun place, I was thinking, like, Laser Tag.
Rocky: I find it informational.
Joan: Rocky, I understand now, what's happening to you. . . . Would it make you feel better to know that there's someone out there watching for us and caring for us and that this person or thing will still be watching for us and caring about us after we leave?
Rocky: I don't believe in God.
Joan: What if I promised, I mean, cross-my-heart promised? I've seen Him.
Rocky: You've had a near-death experience?
Joan: No, I — I've seen him, sometimes, it's not always a him, it's complicated — but the point is, God is there, and if he's there, there's a plan, and if there's a plan, then everything is going to be OK. I think.
Rocky: Yeah, that'd be cool.

Still in the cemetery, Rocky comments that many people seem to die on or about their own birthday. "There," he says, pointing, "another example." Joan looks to see the headstone of Adam's mother, who was born and died in, yes, November.

After lovely scenes between Joan and Adam, and Helen and Will (she shares the Kübler-Ross book with him), the episode closes with a scene on the bus between Joan and Hottie God (the same young, good-looking male God who appeared in the pilot). Joan is feeling blue about Rocky's condition and Adam's grief.

Joan (to God): You have a lot to answer for, buddy. Nobody asked to be born. So we all get to die, and everybody we love dies?
God: Yeah.
Joan: And that's good for you?
God: Joan, there's nothing I could say about that that would make sense to you.
Joan: A lot of what happens here really sucks, so so much for your perfect system! Do you see me being really mad at you right now?
God: Yes.
Joan: Why does it have to be so hard?
God: What specifically?
Joan: Being alive. Let's start there.
God: Do you wish you weren't alive?
Joan: No. I don't know. I wish it didn't hurt so much.
God: It hurts because you feel it, Joan, because you're alive. I love people. That generates a lot of power, a lot of energy, the same energy that binds atoms together. We've all seen what happens when you try to pry them apart.
Joan: So if I don't get attached to people it won't hurt so much?
God: No, it's in your nature to get attached to people. I put that in the recipe. It's when you guys try to ignore that, when you try to go it alone, that it gets ugly. It's hell.
Joan: It's hell . . . ? Like the hell?
Bus stops.
God: Oh, look: your house. Go on, Joan, people are waiting for you.

As the bus pulls away bearing Hottie God, up comes Ben Harper's song on the soundtrack, "I am blessed to be a witness." Which is getting to be exactly how it feels to write this blog.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

For My Friend Who Has Fallen Away from the Church

I have a friend, a powerful, brilliant man who has accomplished far more than I. He has been in higher places and shaken more important hands. He belongs to the best clubs, dines in the best restaurants, attracts the most beautiful women. But there is another difference between us. My friend was raised in the Catholic Church and has fallen away from it, while I was raised apart from it and have been, by some unaccountable mystery, called to it. When I think of my friend, I feel sad. And I truly don't know what to do.

Do you know someone like this?

When I began to see how powerful an impact Catholicism was having on my life, I soon thought, I wish I had been a Catholic all my life. Then, in almost the next thought, I thought of people like my friend, cradle Catholics for whom a door closed somewhere in their minds, for whom the Church is now something in the past that they would just as soon leave behind, and I realized how lucky I was to come to it now, after two-thirds or three-quarters or who knows how much of a long, winding life, only to find myself finally at home. 

This, it seems to me, is the contemporary story of the prodigal son writ a million times over—all of the born Catholics of my (boomer) generation who, in the years following Vatican II, meaning the years of Vietnam and the sexual revolution, thought to themselves, I know better, there's something about the Church that is wrong, I don't need that anymore. I know that the Church, like the good father in the parable, or the good Mother that it is, waits to welcome them all home again, if only they would find their way there.

But what can we do to help get them there? More specifically, what can I do about my friend?

I see him now, same age as me, approaching sixty, with his children moved away, his house gone quiet, his power at his firm on the wane, his golf game getting shorter and more erratic by the year, and I wonder, What do his last years hold for him? What does eternity hold? I like him, I love him, and for all that he is not a church-going Catholic anymore, I admire him tremendously. At times that are not necessarily my best, I even envy him, even today: the power, the clubs, the money, the women.

What can I do for my friend? I know that the direct approach will not work. I've tried it, and anyway, I'm not subtle enough, not by half. Ever hear of a bull in a china shop? Well, Bull is my last name, so that's half of the old chestnut right there. I'm not as direct as Ferde—who can be a sledgehammer when tweezers would do—but I'm in that league.

What can any of us do? Because just as Ferde and I and everyone at St. Mary's are Catholics for Julian DesRosiers and for all the other young people coming along behind us, it seems to me that we have to be Catholics for all those who once were Catholics and could be again. Somehow, I'm thinking, we have to live our lives in such a way, or somehow find the grace, or let the grace find us, so that we are so joyous, so resplendent, that others will be drawn to the Church by our example. This will never happen, at least for me, by standing on a soapbox in front of St. Mary's and proclaiming the kingdom or by ringing doorbells door to door. But somehow happen it must, if my friend is ever to find his way back. Either that, or God will just have to hit him over the head, as He did me.

I know the answer, or think I do: prayer. I must pray more often and more fervently for my friend. But even with prayer and the grace that buoys me, I slip, I sink, I fall. I myself am so weak that sometimes in confession I feel most of all that I've let the world down with my sins. Forget my salvation. What about my friend's salvation? What about the salvation of everyone for whom I am repeatedly a bad example, not a holy one? Every time I slip, every time I'm a jerk instead of joyful, I risk shedding a negative light on my experience, on the Church, the good Mother waiting at the door.

Of course, I'm probably giving myself too much credit. And the Mother not enough. Jesus Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, is the one calling the prodigals, all those lost sheep, home. I've tried to recount all the many reasons YIM Catholic. I even summarized them in a personal psalm. And they don't add up to the One Reason, what I have called the unaccountable mystery, for which any of us is a Christian.

Probably, then, I should just shut up and pray. And go regularly to confession. And say a rosary at Adoration today for my friend. Because I do love him, I do love my life as a Catholic, and so therefore logically I can only want that life for him and for all those I love.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Because of Our History (Guest Post)

A guest post arrives today from Renetta Burlage, an author and publisher from Iowa. Renetta's lovely book of family history, Bread on the Table, tells the story of her grandmother. Here she tells of a different, longer story: the two thousand years of Catholic history that inspire her and explain in part why she is a Catholic. 

We can all trace our ancestry back to some point in our family tree, giving us an idea of who we are today and where we originated. The Catholic Church has a history as well. From Pope Benedict XVI back to our first pope, St. Peter, our church has a history rooted in Christ Jesus. As Catholics, we have a common identity and we know where our faith comes from. Over two thousand years have passed since Jesus instructed the Apostles to "Go Forth and spread the Good News." Although I received the sacrament of Baptism as an infant, it is this longevity, this deep and unbreakable bond that draws and holds me to my faith today.

As the youngest of five children, I was raised in a Catholic family where my parents led by example instead of discussing their faith openly. My siblings and I never questioned the structure or family traditions that revolved around our faith: Sunday mass at 8:00 a.m., catechism on Saturday mornings, Holy Days of Obligation, Holy Week services, Sister School in June taught by nuns, and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Our Catholic faith was entwined in our lives and became part of our family history.

While attending college, I had the opportunity to explore other faiths through friendships of people I met. This was interesting and gave me a new perspective, allowing me to view my Catholic faith from a different angle. Although I came away from the experience realizing that we all shared the same God, my heart was not content until I came back to the roots that sustained my family, my Catholic faith.

One of the devotions I started during college was reciting the rosary. My mother, who converted to Catholicism before marrying my father, has always had a strong devotion to our Blessed Virgin Mother, and her rosary has been her lifeline. When faced with a challenge or perilous situation, my mother would quickly remind us to say three Hail Marys while trusting that Mary would intervene and watch over us.

In addition to praying for our Blessed Mother's intercession, I have found comfort and joy in praying to our beautiful Communion of Saints for their spiritual guidance. The saints are an important segment of the Church's history, and I marvel at the experiences these men and women had as holy models of Christ. Just like you and me, these people were born of human flesh and blood. Yet their lives exemplied their total surrender to God's will and their service to others in need. The Catholic Church is enriched by the saints and the examples of holiness they demonstrate. My personal favorite is St. Anthony, and I value the St. Anthony's Bread program, which provides assistance to those in need.

So much can be learned from history, especially the historical significance gained from one's own family. Tracing the roots of history can be gratifying and re-enforces our heritage with a sense of belonging to a common body. Recently, I released a family memoir, Bread on the Table: The Story of Lottie Porter and the Family She Raised. It is the story of my maternal grandmother, a widow at the age of 46, who faced the challenge of raising eight children during the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. The experience of researching and writing this book gave me much insight into the lives of my ancestors and how they triumphed during times of adversity.

Today, I feel at home when I practice my faith in the Catholic Church, and my husband and I have incorporated teachings and traditions we have learned from our families into our new, personal family. Like the bonds that connect each member of the family, the principal reason I am Catholic is our Church's strong and sustaining history, which teaches, strengthens, and unites us as one body in Christ.

Because Eleven O'Clock Always Comes

As Elizabeth wrote beautifully yesterday, it is amazing how often the liturgy speaks directly to the questions of our hearts. As I entered St. Mary's this morning, I was reminded that it was two years ago today that I began attending daily mass, on my road to being received into the Church. The next thought was, When did I start taking this for granted?

As I came in, the lights were on in the nave, because it was five minutes to the hour. When I first started coming to mass, I often arrived forty-five minutes early and all but the altar lights were off. Those were holy moments, and I felt the inexpressible value of being called to worship God. Now, I come in like a season ticket holder at the opera, dropping down into my box at the last possible moment to be seen by the most possible people. There are mitigating circumstances, of course: A major book project I'm working on under a tight deadline. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours before mass. And now this blog. Often, I'll wake up with a post half written in my mind, and the only time to put it down is Right Now.

Still, I/we take things for granted so quickly and with so little compunction. I was reminded of that again yesterday as Katie and I celebrated our 25th anniversary, partly with dinner at a restaurant where we had one of our first dates. And again this morning I was reminded by Father Barnes's homily and by something Ferde said, like an exclamation point, at the end of mass.

The first reading today, from Romans (2:1–11), is all about judging and being judged. But Father Barnes's first comment was not about judging but about time: Not quoting here exactly, he said we have limited time to repent, to get things right with God.

I thought immediately to myself, And you are 58 years old, and you have a lot of catching up to do, and you're taking this for granted?! You'd better wake up, brother.

Our faith, which can be such a source of joy, is a serious business at the same time. Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour!

Back in my Eastern spirituality days, which reached their peak in the 1980s, I met a man who inspired me more than any other. His name was Michel. Several encounters with Michel were eye-opening for me. They led me to feel a possibility that I had never known before. Then, for circumstances not entirely under my control, I lost contact with Michel. Then, a few years later, I heard that Michel had died. I felt this as a terrible loss. I felt separated from the very source of goodness. I deeply regretted my own failure to contact Michel again before his death, come what might have come. And I knew that some things are lost forever, irrevocably.

That may be the way the Apostles, the women, and other followers of Christ felt the day after the Crucifixion. Of course, they got a second chance. And we get a second chance every morning at mass! Imagine that. Michel may be gone, but Jesus Christ is present every single day—in the Church, in the Eucharist, and in our fellowship as Christians. What a joyous thought!

As Father Barnes added in his homily, quoting one of his teachers in seminary, "God could have sent us a letter." But instead he sent us his own Son, he sent us Himself. And He is present here in this sanctuary and there in that tabernacle, every day we open our hearts and minds to Him.

As we exited mass, things got serious again, as only Ferde can make them serious. He began talking about theatre, where both he and his wife have worked professionally, and he reminded me of an expression common among theatre people. No matter how good or bad the show was, "eleven o'clock always comes." The show ends and will soon be forgotten.

Which in the theatre can be a blessing but in life is another matter. Eleven o'clock is coming! Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour! Wake up, brother, wake up! Today is the only day you have to get things right with God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Because of Katie

In honor of our 25th wedding anniversary today and especially in honor of Katie, the only person I know who would gladly swim off one of the Aran Islands in March and without whose courage and goodness (who knows?) I might not have had what it takes to stick with a marriage, even to such an exceptional person, for 25 years, or long enough to become a Catholic who, now bolstered by faith, upholds and defends the inviolability of marriage between a man and a woman, and especially this man and this woman—In honor of all this, I say, I'll quote a few excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject of matrimony. Words to live by—

1602 Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of "the wedding-feast of the Lamb." Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its "mystery" . . .
1603 . . . God himself is the author of marriage. . . .
1604 God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.
1613 On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign—at his mother's request—during a wedding feast. . . .
1617 The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.
1640 . . . the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. 
1641 . . . The grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple's love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they "help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children."
1642 Christ is the source of this grace. . . .
1643 "Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter . . . "
1644 The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses' community of persons, which embraces their entire life . . .
1646 By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses.
1648 It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God's faithful love.

Happy anniversary, darling.

Survey #2: Because of What Hymn?

As I've written previously, Saturday morning men's group can be a trial, especially when we argue dogma. But this week, Jonathan, the smartest, best-read person in the group, talked about Catholic hymnody, and I got answers to some questions—like why our hymnals are not written in four-part harmony and why Catholics don't end hymns with "Amen."

These questions have plagued me since becoming a Catholic because if there's one thing I remember from Episcopal church-going circa age 13, it's singing the Protestant hymnal alongside my dad, and if there's one thing I miss since converting, it's singing the Protestant hymmal (though singing alongside Dad is no longer an option).

Especially I remember learning to read music and taking a stab at the bass line on Protestant power hymns like "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." When I got lost—usually because I could not split my attention between the harmony and the relatively unknown verses 3-4-5-6—I always knew that I could really slam the old Amen at the end.

Now, not only is there no bass line to sing but there's no Amen to slam. But I sing out anyway, although your average Catholic, to judge by my fellow, otherwise wonderful parishioners, is lily-livered when it comes to hymn singing. Poor Father Barnes comes up the center aisle behind the crucifix and the altar servers, belting "Come Now, Almighty King!" for all he's worth, and do we back him up? No. Catholics are cowards when it comes to hymnody. Protestants may not be liturgical in the main, but they sing God's praises loud enough to make the grape juice ripple in the Dixie Cups.

I'm not going to get into detail about Jonathan's presentation. I don't remember it in much detail, to be honest. But the main message was, Protestants are the man where hymns are concerned and Catholics are the mouse. Which explains the lack of both harmony in the hymnal and slammable Amens. The one hopeful message I took away from the meeting was that, now that we have a pope who is also a music afficionado, the word out of Rome is, let's sing, people. I hope we do.

But you, my dear brother, my dear sister—what hymns have inspired you? I've mentioned two from my salad days in the Episcopal Church, and I'll mention a couple of others that have inspired me only since becoming a Catholic: "Christ is Made the Sure Foundation" and "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name."

How about you? Let's hear it in comments below! I'll wait a week before summarizing your responses.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Because of A Call to Silence

On the last page of his memoir, my father wrote, “There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn't make a good monk." An athlete, a war veteran, a businessman, a sociable person, Dad didn't figure for a contemplative. But I understand. I thought I could have been a monk too, at least until I read An Infinity of Little Hours.

I felt the tug of monasticism well before my conversion in 2008, though my marriage in 1984 and the two children who followed made monastic life something I could only fantasize about and never did. But after being received into the Church two Easters ago, one of my first adventures as a newly fledged Catholic was to sign up for a retreat at a Benedictine abbey south of Boston. I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours pretty faithfully for several months, and the retreat offered an entire weekend's study of the Divine Office. It was a natural for me. Introduced to the monks of Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts, I felt instantly welcome, and by the Sunday morning of retreat weekend I literally felt that the liturgy was praying through me. It was a blessed experience. Soon, I was singing with the schola for Sunday masses, and commuting two hours round-trip both Sunday morning and Thursday evening, when rehearsal was held. One Thursday evening before rehearsal, the monks invited me to dine with them, a kind gesture of hospitality that they must share with many others. But it made me feel special and loved.

Within about three months, however, I began to experience a conflict between this fascinating brush with monastic life and a deeper commitment: full participation in the life of my local parish in Beverly, St. Mary Star of the Sea. I have a habit of overcommitting myself, and boy, was I ever! I had begun attending meetings of Communion and Liberation at the St. Mary's rectory on Friday evenings. When Eucharistic Adoration was instituted that summer of 2008, I signed up for one hour a day, five days a week. Then I volunteered to start a parish newsletter—either before or after I agreed to be a lector. I joked to Father Barnes that I was like his dog, a puppy named Finbar, who was dashing around the rectory yard eating everything. Flushed with the excitement of being a Catholic, I was madly snapping up everything in sight. 

Sobered by my own drunkenness, I withdrew from my commitments to the abbey, intent on giving my best to St. Mary's in Beverly. This is the parish Katie grew up in. Moreover, it is literally across the street from our publishing office. In significant ways, St. Mary's is the spiritual heart of Beverly. And my confidence in Father Barnes as pastor and guide was growing by the week. It made sense to put my eggs in this one basket, and I have never regretted the decision, although I still miss the abbey.

At about this time, I began reading An Infinity of Little Hours, which I bought at the Glastonbury Abbey bookshop on one of my last Sundays there. The subtitle explains the content: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order. The order is the Carthusians; the monastery in question is Parkminster,  the only Carthusian house, or charterhouse, in present-day England (check out the high-tech Web site); and the five young men are novices—three Americans, an Irishman, and a German—who entered in 1960. Early in the book the author writes that of the five only one became a fully professed Carthusian following the mandatory five-year trial period. This injects an element of suspense into the reading: Who will it be and why? Or conversely who will fail to make the grade and why?

The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of monasticism, except that once fully professed, they are enlisted forever. They effectively live in individual hermitages around a central courtyard and only emerge in silence two or three times a day for mass, prayer, and occasional meals taken in community. Their "major work," according to the author, is Night Office, said between 11 pm and 2 am. The Monks feel "the special responsibility of being awake when everyone else is asleep." Which means, of course, that they don't get as much sleep as you or I. Once a week, they take a walk together, known as spatiamentum, promenading two by two through the countryside and changing partners on command every five minutes so that they do not become too attached. They are never to make eye contact with one another. Carthusians do not minister to the surrounding community; they do no missionary work; Carthusians pray. Their motto is Soli Deo, God alone. They wear hair shirts. They take cold-water baths (or did until recent changes). From September 14 (The Exaltation of the Cross) until Easter, except Sundays and feast days, they undertake "the great monastic fast," one meal a day and a pretty sparse meal at that. For lent, they also give up dairy products. And on and on.

The author is a woman, Nancy Klein Maguire. Given that women cannot enter a Carthusian monastery under any circumstances, you'd think Maguire must have had three strikes against her before even starting to write. But she had an ace up her sleeve: her husband is a former Carthusian novice attached to Parkminster. In fact, if you put two and two together, it seems that she is married to one of the four 1960 novices who didn't make the cut. Dave, or Dom Philip, as he is known in the book, "had weighed the difficulty of solitude before he came to the Charterhouse. He had not weighed the difficulty of the other monks." What drives Dom Philip out finally is the horrible singing of his fellow monks in choir. In Maguire's on-line biography, her husband is described as "an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn't minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn't tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office."

The meaning of the cell to a Carthusian is, Get to God or get out. Dom Philip did just that, as did three of  the other four. One found that he was a homosexual and decided to live an openly gay life outside the cloister. Another was so severe with fasting and penances that he all but went crazy as a monk. I forget now the other reason for leaving.

Maguire's description of life in a charterhouse is so vivid, you can feel the cold damp of the cell and the rude comfort of a coarse sheet and blanket on a lonely bed. You can feel the hunger pangs from mid-September until Easter. You can feel the terrible loneliness. I was not cut out to be a Navy Seal, and now I know that I was not cut out to be a Carthusian, or perhaps any kind of monk. Number one reason? Other than celibacy, it has to be the hair shirt. When I was a boy, I had to wear wool pants to church one hour per week, and it nearly drove me buggy. I itched so much I cried. I begged my mother to get me cotton pants. A hair shirt, for this pampered guy, would be a lifelong torture.

So what is it about monastic life that attracted me and attracts me still? What is it that attracted Dad? It is the silence, the chance to bring the rest of life to stillness and "know that I am God." Next month I am going on a four-day retreat with two friends at St. Joseph's Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts—another brush with monastic living. I'm sure I'll come home with new impressions. Maybe I'll even report on them. But one thing I know for certain: I'm coming home.

Footnote: Some may already have thought of Into Great Silence, the film about the original Carthusian monastery founded by St. Bruno in the Alps in 1084. Perhaps you wonder whether that wasn't equally an influence on me. I couldn't say. I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. It was just too—silent.