Monday, November 30, 2009

Because This May Be My Last Mass

Gulp . . . My eyes water, and I get a lump in my throat just looking at this photograph.

That is Our Lord on Iwo Jima, and a priest providing comfort and solace to the sheep of His flock. Young Marines in a crazy, mixed-up, madhouse of a world with death staring them right in the face. Death from a thousand angles, at any second, in diverse manners and forms, all of which are horrible.


Note to Ferde: I messed up the Liturgy of the Hours this morning. You know how I was trying to explain to you the order of readings on Saturday morning? Fuggedaboutit! This navigator's lost! Take the wheel, take the wheel! After posting on today's second reading, I realized at Mass that it is not today's second reading.

Father Barnes, in his homily, said that in a way he is sorry when, already on the first Monday of Advent, the Advent readings are interrupted by a feast day. Readings interrupted? Feast day? Something in me woke up, a part of me that apparently had remained in bed when my body went vertical at 3:30 a.m. I had to drive my daughter to the airport at 5 a.m., but not before making a cup of tea and reading the Office, and then posting a brilliant meditation on a pastoral letter of St. Charles Borromeo.

Father Barnes noted how much he loves the Advent readings, and then made a nice segue into St. Andrew—whose heart was open to the appearance of Christ by the Sea of Galilee, just as Simeon's heart was open to the arrival of the baby Jesus in the temple, just as our hearts can be open too at Advent.

I hustled back to the Liturgy after Mass to find I had overlooked not one but two readings for the feast of St. Andrew, Apostle. I'm sure Ferde has found them already.

I can save that post on St. Charles for next year, when the feast of St. Andrew will not fall on the first Monday in Advent. Meanwhile, I think I have discovered a great new publishing opportunity: The Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies.

Because Advent Has Never Been Better

I remember the feeling last year: my first Advent as a Catholic! What a thrill that was, to experience the anticipation, joy, and depth of meaning fully for the first time in my life. This year? With apologies to B.B. King, the thrill is definitely not gone. I picked up today's Office of Readings and found a reading that just couldn't possibly have been there last year! How could I have missed this?

From a pastoral letter by Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awatired by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. 

The story of Simeon has always touched something deep in me. I think I knew it even as a child and it gave me a shiver then. He's happy to die! Now that he has seen the Lord, he's happy to die. 

This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. 

How I celebrate Advent is really important. In recent years, I had become something of a Scrooge. The period between Thanksgiving (all that food) and Christmas (all that shopping) had become more stressful than I could bear. Last year, its meaning was completely transformed: I am a Catholic now. It's time to be vigilant! Emmanuel is coming!

In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the sees of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Get a load of that one long sentence. Imagine that every promise in that sentence is precisely, literally true! To be welcomed into the innermost recesses of heaven? To be trained in right conduct? To be a child of God? I want in! 

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ's coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

Christ is born today! Isn't that what the carol says? Have you ever considered that these words are not a fragment of dialogue from 2,000 years ago but a statement of fact? 

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace. 

This is the best explanation of the Second Coming I have ever heard. I mean, I'm willing to believe that Christ will come again as in a sort of Cecil B. DeMille epic in the full splendor of IMAX some day. But I've never marked the date on a calendar, and I'm not moving to Waco or some remote mountaintop to wait for Him. Too busy today, sorry. But to remove all obstacles to his presence so that he may dwell spiritually in our hearts? I'll do my best.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament. 

We are all Simeon! And the words of the prophet Isaiah, also from today's Office, were written expressly for us:

     In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord's house
     shall be established as the highest mountain
     and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
     many peoples shall come and say:

"Come, let us climb the Lord's mountain, 
     to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, 
     and we may walk in his paths."
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
     and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
     and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
     nor shall they train for war again.

That last statement—no more sword-raising, no more war colleges—suggests that the time might not quite be at hand, that I'd best not mark my calendar "Second Coming Today." Better far to "remove all obstacles to His presence."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Because She Was a Catholic, and a Pacifist

Today is the anniversary of the death of a great Catholic. A one-time radical, a sinner, a convert, a courageous pacifist (no, that is not an oxymoron), not yet a saint—she gets my vote for most compelling American Catholic of the 20th century. Her name? Dorothy Day. She died 29 years ago today.

Let's begin with three quotes:

“Dorothy Day has been described as a very erratic and irresponsible person. She has engaged in activities which strongly suggest that she is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups. From past experience with her it is obvious she maintains a very hostile and belligerent attitude towards the Bureau and makes every effort to castigate the Bureau whenever she feels so inclined.”—J. Edgar Hoover

“I write to initiate the canonization process of Dorothy Day. To be sure, her life is a model for all in the third millennium, but especially for women who have had or are considering abortions. . . . I contend that her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it."—John Cardinal O'Conner

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”—Dorothy Day

Despite her concern, Dorothy Day is difficult to dismiss. Yet she is dismissed, or overlooked by mainstream Catholicism. I prepared a talk on her for men's group about a year ago, and more than half the guys admitted that they knew little or nothing about her. Amazing but true: I was a self-described Vietnam era peacenik, but I never learned about Dorothy until I became a Catholic two years ago. Unlike the Berrigan brothers or Father Drinan, more Catholics who came out against that war, Dorothy was too busy helping the poor to steal the headlines.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, she was the daughter of a non-believing journalist father whose beat was horse-racing. He apparently spent quality time at the track. Dorothy lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1908 and remembered it vividly in her memoir The Long Loneliness. Her family soon moved to Chicago, where she had her first prolonged exposure to poverty. She enrolled at the University of Illinois but left after two years, moved to New York City, and became a freelance journalist, principally for socialist, communist, and anarchist periodicals. In 1917 she joined a suffragist rally outside the White House, was jailed with other female demonstrators, and went on a hunger strike. She was 20.

In 1924, she published her first book, an autobiographical novel called The Eleventh Virgin. It was based on her own bohemian life and would be the only writing in a lifetime of writing in which she would refer to her own abortion. Soon she had moved into a beach house on Staten Island with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, a confirmed atheist. She seems to have adored him, though he spent most of the weeks in Manhattan and was with her just on weekends.

Thinking she could no longer have children, she became pregnant by Batterham in 1926 and gave birth to a daughter, Tamar Teresa. She asked a nun about baptizing her daughter. The nun said, Fine, but Dorothy should consider becoming a Catholic herself. And knowing that it would mean losing her atheist "husband," she did just that. Dorothy lived alone with Tamar as a single Catholic mother for six years, torn between the Church and her vision of social justice. She believed, not without justification, that the Church talked about caring for the poor while catering to the non-poor.

In 1932, Dorothy joined a hunger march in Washington (it was the Great Depression, folks). She prayed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that “some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers.” When she returned home to New York, she found Peter Maurin on her doorstep. (She told the story this way; others say Maurin appeared within a few days or weeks of her return.)

Maurin was an itinerant preacher in old beat-up clothes. He proposed to Dorothy a three-part plan: what he called round-table discussions, houses of hospitality, and agronomic universities. For the rest of her life (until 1980), Dorothy put this plan in action. The first issue of The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that sold for one penny a copy, was distributed at a Communist rally in Union Square. I like to think of that paper as Dorothy's blog. She wrote for it constantly. And when she, or the paper, or her Houses of Hospitality (a string of homeless shelters founded in 1935) ran out of money, she wrote a front-page plea for funds, and the funds invariably arrived.

In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain. The Church supported Franco. The left supported the Communists. Dorothy Day outraged them all by remaining neutral. In 1939, alert to the threat of Nazism before many other intellectuals, she founded the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. Despite her critique of Hitler's regime, she espoused pacifism when the US entered the war following Pearl Harbor.

In the 1960s, Dorothy would join campaigns for nuclear disarmament and civil rights, and she would oppose the war in Vietnam. A Catholic Worker staffer would be the first personal jailed for burning his draft card. Another committed suicide by setting himself on fire in front of the US mission to the UN. (Dorothy's CW editorial the following day is heart-breaking.) In 1973, she was arrested for the last time, on a United Farm Workers picket line in California.

In 2000, the cause for her beatification was formally opened with Vatican approval.

Without question, the most challenging fact of Dorothy Day's life is her adamant pacifism. Here, I know I cannot speak more eloquently than Dorothy herself, so I'll end with the most challenging thought of all: remaining pacifist in the face of Nazism.

Our Country Passes from Undeclared to Declared War; We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand (CW 1942)

Dear Fellow Workers in Christ,

Lord God, merciful God, our Father, shall we keep silent, or shall we speak? And if we speak, what shall we say? 

I am sitting here in the church on Mott Street writing this in Your presence. Out on the streets it is quiet, but You are there, too, in the Chinese, in the Italians, these neighbors we love. We love them because they are our brothers, as Christ is our Brother, and God our Father. But we have forgotten so much. We have all forgotten. . . . 

Seventy-five thousand copies of The Catholic Worker go out every month. What shall we print? . . . We will print the words of Christ, who is with us always, even to the end of the world. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

We are at war, a declared war, with Japan, Germany, and Italy, But still we can repeat Christ's words, each day, holding them close in our hearts, each month printing them in the paper. In times past Europe has been a battlefield. But let us remember St. Francis, who spoke of peace, and we will remind our readers of him, too, so they will not forget. 

In The Catholic Worker we will quote our Pope, our saints, our priests. We will go on printing the articles of Father Hugo, who reminds us today that we are all "called to be saints," that we are other Christs, reminding us of the priesthood of the laity.

We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts. 

But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brothers and sisters, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles. 

[Dorothy urges daily, hourly prayer for an end to the war, along with acts of mercy.]

Because of our refusal to assist in the prosecution of war and our insistence that our collaboration be one for peace, we may find ourselves in difficulties. But we trust in the generosity and understanding of our government and our friends, to permit us to continue to use our paper to "preach Christ crucified."

And may the Blessed Mary, Mother of beautiful love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope, pray for us.

YIMC Book Clubbers Update!

The honored roll of charter members of the YIM Catholic Book Club has been expanded to eight names by imperial fiat. There's still time to put your name on the list. No entry fee, no obeisance is required. Just send a comment on either of the first two posts: this one or this one.
(Signed) His Excellency 

The YIMCBC Roll of Honor
Kneeling Catholic
Frank the Jarhead
& Your Ob'd't S'v't

To Shout “Happy New Year!” on November 29

Today is our New Year's Day, or at least it's mine. I was a lector at last night's Vigil Mass. I picked up my missal and noted: Year C! We've entered a new cycle. I entered Year A as an RCIA student at the end of 2007, Year B as a Catholic at Advent 2008—I am now completing my three-year course in Catholic liturgy! First of many, I hope.

Then a few minutes later, Father Barnes lighted the first Advent candle, and my heart chirped. I remember the Advent candles from my early years in the Episcopal Church. Other than Christmas and Easter, the Sundays of Advent were the time when I always felt that I was coming back to Church, coming back to God and Jesus. Ah, yes, this is what it's all about!

The rest of the year was, frankly, a blur. I went with my parents to church every Sunday, served as an acolyte every other Sunday or so (loved doing so with Dr. Harold Bassage), and took communion once a month. But otherwise? We didn't mark the beginning of Lent by going to church or smearing ashes on our forehead. We gave up nothing for Lent and didn't attend Good Friday services either. There were no saints' days to observe, no references to Vietnamese martyrs with unprounceable names or wild women of the 12th century like Hildegard of Bingen.

I was made vaguely aware by odd old terms like Whitsuntide that there was a religious way of marking the year without using January, February, or December. But nothing in Sunday school or our family's religious culture enforced this awareness. We were living a stripped-down Protestant life: go to Church on Sunday and work/play your fanny off the rest of the week. Keep your Day-Timer up to date, and don't miss Church on Christmas!

Then I became a Catholic, and every day was someone's feast. (First thought: Doesn't that make fasting impossible?) I read Kristin Lavransdatter, where time is marked not by the months but by the liturgical calendar: "A week after the feast of St. Olaf, Kristin and her father—" I found it the most beautiful book, as have several friends. I began reading the Catechism seriously. (Confession: I read Kreeft's Cliff Notes in RCIA.) I began teaching religious ed to fourth-graders and realized how little I know about the liturgical year, about this extraordinarily rich tradition that is now mine.

Becoming a Catholic is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. The greatest. Every day at Mass now, I have something to celebrate, and every time I pick up the Liturgy of the Hours to recite something so simple as a psalm, the clock in my heart goes tick.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Because Chesterton Could Write Such a Poem

As you contemplate the Catholic Church's position on war—while reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton—consider what might have moved Chesterton to write “Lepanto.” My friend Frank, a retired Marine, alerted me to the poem. The illustration is Fernando Bertelli’s The Sea Battle of Lepanto, 1572. Frank notes: “At Lepanto a combined Christian force crushed the Ottoman navy. This painting occupies a prominent position at one end of the Hall of Maps, in the Vatican Museums, Rome.” Frank adds: “There were marines on those ships. Jack Aubrey would be proud (not to mention our Catholic friend Stephen Maturin).”

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain--hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,--
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, "Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces--four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth."
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still--hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael's on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,--
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John's hunting, and his hounds have bayed--
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings' horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign--
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

YIMC Book Clubbers Alert!

All you would-be reading Catholics! It’s time to rally ’round. Charter memberships in the YIM Catholic Book Club are still available. So far, there are five of us reading and yacking: Mary, Kneeling Catholic, EPG, Frank, and Your Ob'd't S'v't. A motley crew and true. There's still time for you to join.

Read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, chapter 1, with our comments, then read chapter 2, with more comments. And join the mad stampede!

Because of Hildegard and Simon

You would never, ever find this in the basement of an Episcopal Church, what I found in the basement of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church during this morning’s men’s group—my friend “Simon,” presenting an hour-long bobbing, weaving, juking, and jiving meditation on Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard may be a darling of the New Agers, but Episcopalians are generally not into either New Age or female saints. And Simon is an original, a devout Catholic who reads Hildegard’s book of visions Sciavia during Eucharistic Adoration, an eccentric so out there and at the same time so sincere that I wanted to sit at his feet at the end of the hour to hear the answers to two questions:

Who the heck was Hildegard of Bingen? Who the heck is Simon?

Only the guys present at the meeting know Simon’s real name, and I’d like to keep it that way. But I’ll offer you some other data that Simon offered this morning, quite openly. Simon was walking around Paris in the middle of the night about twenty years ago when he saw a doorway. He entered the doorway and found a Perpetual Adoration chapel and a monastery next door. Simon said he has returned to Paris “at least a dozen times” since then, for the sole purpose of returning to that chapel. After the meeting I asked Simon what he was doing wandering around Paris in the middle of the night. “Drunk?” I asked. “Drugged? Psychotic?” He only nodded, as if to say, all of the above.

Who better, then, to hem and haw his way through a heart-felt but wildly improvisational presentation on a 12th-century saint (or blessed) (Simon wasn't really clear) whose Wikipedia entry includes the following bullet points: Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, author, counselor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, channeler, visionary, composer, and polymath. I had already encountered Hildegard through her remarkable music. (I’m listening to the CD “Canticles of Ecstasy” right now and would happily listen to her an hour a day for the duration.) The bullet point that had previously grabbed my attention, mentioned later in the Wiki entry: Hildegard is the first composer, male or female, of whom we have a contemporaneous biography.

I’ve been corresponding with my new friend and blogging pal Frank about the subject of war and the Church’s teaching on war. Frank, a retired US Marine with all the military bona fides you could want, pointed me in the direction of Bernard of Clairvaux, because Bernard was both the founder of the Cistercians (contemplative, pacifist) and a leading proponent of the Second Crusade (active, pugnacious). Reading about Bernard during the past 24 hours, I think I've found a model for how a Catholic might look at both pacifism and what the Catechism terms “just war.”

And who—it turns out, according to Simon—was one of Bernard of Clairvaux’s 12th-century pals? None other than our Hildegard of Bingen!

This is what I love about Catholicism. You meet the strangest people, from those in your parish (Simon) to those in the martyrology (Hildegard). You find these strange people conversing with one another, studying each other, mutually fascinated and fascinating—and constantly connecting with other equally strange and fascinating people. There are so many of these people to be met—some far stranger than others, but all of them fixed on the same teaching, the same Gospel, within the same Universal Catholic Church—that you are forced to one of two conclusions, and there is no other.

Either (a) the whole world is mad and wandering around in a psychotic daze in Paris in the middle of the night or (b) Jesus Christ is Lord.

To Be Frank, Part 1, “From the US Marines to the Harvard Classics”

This blog has put me in touch with Catholics worldwide, many of them converts. One of these, a retired U.S. Marine named Frank, has become a regular correspondent of mine. Recently, I asked him to consider writing his own conversion story. He agreed to do so. Until further notice, I will post one installment each weekend. The series will be indexed under the topic 2BFrank.

On a spring day in 2005 in Southern California, I convinced my wife to move back to my hometown.  The arguments were: better schools, cleaner air, slower living, proximity to grandparents and relatives. It was a monumental sales job because my spouse, though born in Quezon City in the Philippines, is a California girl at heart.  Her family had arrived in Los Angeles after the Marcos regime’s imposition of martial law. The government shut down the radio station where her mom was a broadcaster, and the entire family miraculously obtained visas (mom, dad, and three children) and moved to Hollywood where my future spouse entered the sixth grade.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Because of the Church’s Position on War II

First, let me come clean about a few things:

1. I have never been in a fistfight. I “learned to box” in third grade and, in my only bout, was knocked out by Stevie Walker. I feel obliged to add that Stevie Walker went on to win the tournament; so while I was whipped (b-a-d), I was whipped by the best.

2. I did not fight in the only war for which I would have qualified by age or health, the Vietnam War. My number in the draft lottery was 3, meaning that if I my status had been 1-A, I would have had a draft probability of 100 percent. I was not drafted for a combination of reasons, beginning with, I entered college in the fall of 1969 (status 1-S). I did not run from the war (emigrate to Canada), but I did protest the war—along with millions of other kids my age.

3. My father served in World War II, and I am proud of him for that. I have a number of friends, including Ferde and Frank, who have served with distinction in the military. I am proud of them as my friends, partly for that. Father Barnes was a Navy chaplain, and everyone knows he is a righteous dude.

4. I have had mixed feelings about the two-and-a-half wars launched since Vietnam. On balance, I thought the Gulf War launched by Bush 41 was “just,” as defined by Catholic Church doctrine. (See below.) I thought the Iraq War launched by Bush 43 was in no sense “just”: not defensive (though justified as such), founded on lies (“failures of intelligence”?), and devastating to the civilian population of Iraq. I think the Afghan War, now being escalated by Obama 44, is just plain stupid. The Russians couldn't win in Afghanistan, and they're next door and they're nastier. There's no provision in Catholic doctrine for stupid.

I'm open to attack on any one of these four points (fire away), but none of them is my point. They are only table-setters.

I want to come back eventually to the homily by St. John Chrysostom from today's Office of Readings that I quoted in the first post in this series. But one thing at a time. For right now, what is the Church’s position on war?

The teaching occurs in the Catechism under a discussion of the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill (CCC 2258–2330). Matters also covered by this concise discussion in the Catechism are abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. All of these, plus war, are prohibited by the Fifth Commandment, and arguably by Christ throughout the Gospels. Which is why it is so hard to vote these days, or why Ferde claims that, on occasion, given the choice between a pro-war Republican and a pro-abortion Democrat, he has entered a vote for Donald Duck. Donald may be annoying, but he doesn't kill either unborn babies or innocent children in Baghdad (or wherever our "smart" weapons are imperfectly targeted).

The Catechism is clear when pushed to the wall on war (CCC 2309). The war must be, first of all, defensive, "legitimately" so, and given that, the following conditions must hold.

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
3. there must be serious prospects of success;
4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Furthermore, while Church doctrine allows that such a just war may exist and may be fought, it does not reject pacifism as a viable response to war. It leaves the decision of going to war to civil authorities, but, by upholding both pacifism and just-war doctrine, it also effectively leaves the moral decision about participating in war to the Catholic conscience.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have leaned closer to the pacifist position in recent years, in part because weaponry has become so devastating that it is often impossible to violate the terms of condition # 4 above. Witness "shock and awe." The allied bombardment of Baghdad was out of proportion with the objective of putting Saddam out of business. The civilian casualties there are only the most obvious "evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

To end this post on a personal note—

Why does this make me proud to be a Catholic? Because I think that the Church is wise to be cautious about adhering to a strictly pacifist position, although in the past it has sometimes erred on the side of supporting "just" wars that were unjust. (The First Crusade may have been launched from a just position, but the Fourth?!) Here as elsewhere, the Church has adopted an inclusive position of both/and, while individual popes, bishops, and priests have made their personal positions clearer.

Benedict XVI is one of these. In 2003, he told the Catholic magazine 30 Days, We must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a 'just war' might exist.”

Next up: St. John Chrysostom and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

YIM Catholic Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 2

We got a start on G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” last week, looking at the first chapter, “In Defense of Everything Else.” If you’re just coming in, you might want to check out the discussion and comments here. In the second chapter, “The Maniac,” Chesterton begins setting up his argument for Christianity by taking on two common forms of secular thinking in his time and ours: materialism and its opposite, what he calls “panegoism,” or the belief that only the self is real.

Chesterton summarizes the core belief of materialism, “All things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding in an utterly unconscious tree,” adding that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.” If the universe is just a blind engine pushing matter around, free will is a fiction and man is a puppet. “It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity. I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.”

At the other extreme is the panegoist, the man who “believes in himself”:

There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils [as the materialist does], but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day.

I would add that New Age “religion” is a contemporary form of the “mystical egoism” of Chesterton’s age and therefore not so new, after all, as I argued earlier this week both here and here. In the 1970s, Werner Erhard, founder of est, taught that before we are born, we choose our parents, which is as good as “creating” them, I suppose.

These two extremes, materialism and egoism, exhibit the same paradox, according to the author; they are “complete in theory, crippling in practice.” Each is like a circle closed in upon itself: perfect in its simplicity, but also limited. Chesterton’s final thrust in the direction of Christianity contrasts the circular symbol he describes as a snake eating its own tail (the yin-yang in another form), with the cross, which unites contradictions, as healthy people always do.

* * *

Healthy people. Healthy ordinary people. This is the notion that interests me in this chapter, which otherwise I find pretty dense. (Chesterton does love to pile up analogies, and alliteration.) Chesterton doesn’t accuse materialism or egoism of being illogical. He accuses them of being unhealthy. They limit man, preventing him from being and experiencing all that he can. The materialist and egoist both end in the lunatic asylum. What keeps men sane?

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland.

What I like about this is what I like about Catholicism. First, it places Mystery at the center of our religious life: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity. There are libraries full of commentary on these mysteries, but ultimately they remain mysteries.

Second, Catholicism places the ordinary man and woman in front of the Mystery. When I was moving away from Christianity into spiritual practices that weren't called New Age in the 1960s or 1970s and weren't new then, the appeal of these practices was the promise that I might become extraordinary, that I might rise above the common man. These practices were fundamentally gnostic. They seduced one with the belief that there is an esoteric knowledge that only the true initiate can access. The ordinary man or woman need not apply.

I love the ordinariness of Catholicism, which is another way of saying the universality of Catholicism. Everyone may apply, and be saved. Maybe I am diverging from Chesterton’s main points here, but I encourage readers to use comments to bring the discussion back to Chesterton. What did you find meaningful? Meanwhile, I will stand, or kneel, with my ordinary Catholic friends before the Mystery of the Eucharist—and feel pretty healthy in the bargain.

Because of the Church’s Position on War I

I can’t think of a better time than Thanksgiving morning to launch a series of posts about the Catholic Church’s position on war—which is a fundamental reason why I am proud to be Catholic and therefore fits comfortably within this blogging niche. I’ve thrown up that Roman numeral in the title of this post because this will be only a prologue.

But what a prologue! I’m incited to write about Catholics and war by an exchange of comments with “Kneeling Catholic” that follows my post on George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Day address. The moment the inspiration hit me, I heard the voice of the Peacenik inside me. She said, “But W-e-b-s-t-e-r,” (the Peacenik speaks in soothing tones) “why not read the Divine Office first? It’s always a good idea, W-e-b-s-t-e-r. Why, even The Anchoress does it. It’s not without risks, but . . . ”

The Angry Man butted in, “Aw, shut up! Webster—just read the Liturgy!” Which I did, bowing to the combined advice of my angel and my devil. Taking up the Liturgy of the Hours, I found, as I so often do, a reading for today, Thursday of the 34th week in Ordinary Time, that is eerily on point. Here it is. (I’ll be back to this topic later this holiday weekend, after much turkey, much TV football, three or four naps, and, I hope, a viewing of the new film “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s end-of-days novel.)

From a homily on Matthew by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop [that's him in the icon]

As long as we are sheep, we overcome and, though surrounded by countless wolves, we emerge victorious; but if we turn into wolves, we are overcome, for we lose the shepherd’s help. He, after all, feeds the sheep not wolves, and will abandon you if you do not let him show his power in you. 

What he says is this: “Do not be upset that, as I send you out among the wolves, I bid you be as sheep and doves. I could have managed things quite differently and sent you, not to suffer evil nor to yield like sheep to the wolves, but to be fiercer than lions. But the way I have chosen is right. It will bring you greater praise and at the same time manifest my power.” That is what he told Paul: My grace is enough for you, for in weakness my power is made perfect. “I intend,” he says, “to deal in the same way with you.” For, when he says, I am sending you out like sheep, he implies: “But do not therefore lose heart, for I know and am certain that no one will be able to overcome you.”

The Lord, however, does want them to contribute something, lest everything seem to be the work of grace, and they seem to win their reward without deserving it. Therefore he adds: You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. But, they may object, what good is our cleverness amid so many dangers? How can we be clever when tossed about by so many waves? However great the cleverness of the sheep as he stands among the wolves—so many wolves!—what can it accomplish? However great the innocence of the dove, what good does it do him, with so many hawks swooping upon him? To all this I say: Cleverness and innocence admittedly do these irrational creatures no good, but they can help you greatly.

What cleverness is the Lord requiring here? The cleverness of a snake. A snake will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance even if its body is being cut in pieces, provided it can save its head. So you, the Lord is saying, must surrender everything but your faith: money, body, even life itself. For faith is the head and the root; keep that, and though you lose all else, you will get it back in abundance. The Lord therefore counseled the disciples to be not simply clever or innocent; rather he joined the two qualities so that they become a genuine virtue. He insisted on the cleverness of the snake so that deadly wounds might be avoided, and he insisted on the innocence of the dove so that revenge might not be taken on those who injure or lay traps for you. Cleverness is useless without innocence. 

Do not believe that this precept is beyond your power. More than anyone else, the Lord knows the true natures of created things; he knows that moderation, not a fierce defense, beats back a fierce attack.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. President

It is difficult to imagine the 44th president of the United States delivering this Thanksgiving address as George Washington did 220 years ago.

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Geo. Washington, President

Golly, you can't even get away with "in the year of our Lord" anymore! Then again, it's hard to imagine either Bush, a Clinton, or any other recent president putting God above country. You'd probably have to go back at least to Abraham Lincoln to find anything comparable.

My thanks to reader Frank Weathers for this find!

Happy Thanksgiving,
Webster Bull

Thanks to Father Barnes IV

I don't know what I would have done if I had walked into a Catholic Church two years ago this fall and not found Fr. David Barnes. I might never have stayed. Yesterday and again this morning, I was reminded of what an effective, persuasive priest he is, as he spoke from the pulpit on the Tobin–Kennedy matter.

First, let me be clear that what follows is my understanding of what Father Barnes said. Please credit me with any misunderstanding. The good padre has enough on his plate; he shouldn't have to answer questions about something stupid a parishioner wrote in a blog!

Second, Father barely mentioned the Catholic cause of the week, Providence (RI) Bishop Thomas Tobin's request that Congressman Patrick Kennedy refrain from receiving communion because of Kennedy's outspoken support for abortion. But it was clearly his personal focus.

Each morning, while referring to readings and to the martyrs honored by the liturgical calendar, Father suggested that there are many ways we can err as Catholics. Tuesday, he referred directly to the Tobin-Kennedy affair only at the beginning of the homily, saying that we must be neither "laissez-faire" nor "gleeful"—two common responses, one on either side of the current issue. Sure, it is wrong for cafeteria Catholics (my term, not his) to say, "Aw, heck, what's the big deal? Give the guy communion!" But it is just as wrong to exult in the sins of another, as many do when they say of Kennedy or anyone in his position, "Ha! Serves him right!" To conclude his homily yesterday, Father asked us to meditate on the Vietnamese martyrs, Andrew Dung-Lac and companions. They call us, he said, to a far higher moral position than either the laissez-faire or the gleeful.

Today, Father put a different spin on the matter, referring not to Tobin or Kennedy by name but only to the teaching authority of our bishops. He urged us to recognize that in the Catholic Church the bishops have such authority and that we must listen. To me, this was a ringing endorsement of Tobin's position, although Father never said so explicitly. Instead, he asked us to consider again that we can err on two sides. On one side are those who are so assimilated to our secular culture that they not only don't support the Church on social issues but are even embarrassed by the position Tobin has taken. On the other side are those who, when not gleeful at Kennedy's embarrassment, are railing stridently against him and all those who support abortion. Father Barnes's best line of the two days was this: "It's very easy for Catholics to become talk-show hosts."

Again, Father Barnes asked us to meditate on a martyr: St. Catherine of Alexandria (left), who despite her suffering in captivity apparently radiated such joy in her faith that she converted the emperor's wife and her jailer, before she herself was executed. There is no more convincing witness, Father Barnes said, than the way a Catholic bears suffering.

This he tied in with today's Gospel (Luke 21:12–19), in which Jesus warns his Apostles that they themselves will be called to martyrdom. There is a wonderful commentary on this Gospel reading by preacher to the papal household Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa in Magnificat, which I unfortunately do not have in front of me. The drift of the commentary is this: We may not be called to martyrdom, but as we age and fail in health, many of us will be in the position of Christ before Pilate and the Apostles before their persecutors: Stripped of earthly strength, we will have only our faith to sustain us. Then, each of us will be called to witness to our faith.

I could not help leaving church this morning thinking of my own father, who died helplessly in a hospice bed last autumn. He was no Catholic, but the quiet dignity and, yes, the religious faith with which he accepted his fate, and smiled gamely up at us from his pillow, is a witness I will always treasure and try to honor.

Because I am Peter, Revisited

Many thanks to Laura R. for sending this video tour of the scavi (excavations) under the Vatican referred to in my initial post about St. Peter.

Readers may also be interested in information available at this link.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Because I Am Peter

I went to bed last night re-reading George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic, the chapter about St. Peter and Catholicism's physicality. I woke up this morning to Peter's second letter in the Office of Readings, where he says, "We were witnesses of His sovereign majesty." Do you find that sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at you?

Peter was so many ways a failure, as I have been. Denying Christ three times is only the best-known example of Peter's failings. A recent thorny issue in my life reminds me every single day of my own.

In his chapter on the Apostle, Weigel takes the reader to the Vatican and to the scavi (excavations) beneath, where Peter's actual physical remains have been discovered. The body parts below the shins are missing, suggesting that after Peter had died upside-down on the cross, he was removed by cutting off his feet. Talk about physicality! Then Weigel leads us outside to  St. Peter's Square and the obelisk that stands at the center. Weigel links this obelisk, which stood in Nero's circus during the first century AD, with Peter's martyrdom, which may well have taken place in that circus. But not before reminding us of Peter's final denial. Peter wanted to escape martyrdom, tradition tells us, but as he fled Rome he encountered the Risen Lord. Peter asked Christ, "Quo vadis, Domine?" (Where are you going, Lord?) And Christ said: "I am going to Rome to be crucified." Whereupon Peter, for the final time in a long lifetime of times, realized his error and headed back to Rome, to be crucified. Weigel writes:

Tradition tells us that Peter died during one of Nero's spasms of persecution, and if so, he likely died in Nero's circus. If he did, then it's quite possible that the last thing Peter saw on this earth was the obelisk you're now pondering, which was moved to the square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. Think about that . . .

I did think about that. And later:

Imagine Peter, in the agonized moments before his death, looking at that obelisk we can see today, and you can understand that none of this is easy.

I flicked off my iPhone with its Kindle app, and went to sleep imagining that as well. After ending the day with Peter's last vision, I began the next with his voice, in the Office of Readings. Imagine writing this eye-witness account, as Peter did of the Transfiguration:

It was not by way of cleverly concocted myths that we taught you about the coming in power of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we were eyewitnesses of his sovereign majesty. He received glory and praise from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him out of the majestic splendor: "This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests." We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company on the holy mountain. 

We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company . . . Peter was there! This imperfect, constantly sinning, ever-forgetful fisherman whose real name wasn't even Peter—was there. I take comfort in this fact. It suggests that I can go to bed every night distraught over my own failings, but still the sun will rise and there will be evidence good enough for a court room that God is merciful, reason enough for even a skeptic to hope. 

None of this is easy, Weigel writes, and Peter agrees, urging us to—

Keep your attention closely fixed on [the prophetic message], as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts. 

Because “New Age” Will Soon Be Old Hat, Revisited

Following my post of Monday evening about her article in Catholic Exchange, “New Age: Still With Us and Still Dangerous, Part I,” Cheryl Dickow e-mailed me, “Please make sure you read part II today and reconsider your perspective—allowing people to feel lax about the New Age doctrine can indeed be dangerous.” I did read part II, and so can you. It doesn't change my thinking. In fact, it makes this old mule even more obstinate.

Part II is mostly an interview with a New Age debunker, Sharon Lee Giganti. Giganti has made it her mission to reveal the worst tragedies associated with New Age thinking.

I had such a tragedy in my distant family. True story: A New Ager got sick with cancer and her New Age husband decided against traditional medical care, opting instead for prayer. He and his wife both agreed that, if they could just eliminate negative thoughts from their lives, healing would flow naturally. The wife died painfully. The family was shattered, emotionally and literally (some still don't talk to others).

The name of the New Age "religion" in question here? It's not so new at all. Christian Science. The picture is a hint: CS founder Mary Baker Eddy. Looks pretty New Agey to me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Because “New Age” Will Soon Be Old Hat, and the Church Will Still Be Standing

I read Cheryl Dickow's Catholic Exchange article for 11/23/09 with interest and a shrug. "New Age," the title frets: "Still With Us and Still Dangerous." Still with us? Sure. Still Dangerous? To me, the New Age, now in reruns, is no more dangerous than, say, "2012" or Britney Spears. You can judge for yourself about them.

I fully agree with Dickow's opening premise: There are millions of so-called Christians who believe they don't need the Church. God is everywhere, even at the beach. Who needs clergy, buildings, liturgy? In the college-educated, knee-jerk-liberal suburbs north of Boston, I am surrounded by people who think like this. Many of them buy this basic premise of today's New Age, along with another fundamental tenet: "I create my own reality."

But to me, who was a young adult during the tsunami of so-called "spiritual awakening" that characterized the late 1960s, when the parents and grandparents of today's New Agers were channeling Eastern thought into the western mainstream, what passes for "New Age" today looks like just another publishing fad, a third-degree undertow of the tsunami, or what the Sufis (popular in the late 1960s) called the soup of the soup of the soup. Personally, I'm going to let it all wash out to sea. The Church will still be standing.

How do millions of Christians get duped into believing the ramblings of New Age messengers like the best-selling Neale Donald Walsch? The same way they get duped into believing the premise of films like "2012" and listening to artistes like Britney Spears. It's the media, stupid. Ten years from today, guaranteed, other gurus, blockbusters, and chanteuses will be running up even bigger numbers. The Church will still be standing.

Here's my perspective. You have to go back to the First World War and the years following. Ha, ha, sorry—I'm not that old, but I've done my reading. It was after the first war that T. S. Eliot wrote "The Waste Land," a description of the spiritual landscape in the 1920s, and Robert Graves wrote "Goodbye to All That," a sad adieu to all the old certainties. The war's terrible slaughter had left the West limp with disillusionment, and the old ways, all of them, had been shown to be moribund—apparently. Modernism was the vogue, and other isms like communism, socialism, and existentialism were in the ascendant. Catholicism? Outdated, ossified, impotent, unnecessary.

Across this landscape came mesmerizing figures from the East to fill the spiritual void that undeniably existed. Zen master D. T. Suzuki and Jiddu Krishnamurti, a sage identified by the Theosophical Society and schooled by Annie Besant, were two of the better known. Slightly less known but, for my money, far more compelling was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (left). I spent the years of my 20s and 30s reading the Gurdjieff canon, and although this is not the place to expound on it, I will vouch for its meaning to me—even today. But here's my main point: Virtually every "New Age" principle being foisted on the gullible today amounts to a watered-down rip-off of a very interesting Gurdjieffian idea.

One example cited by Dickow, "I create my reality," is a third-degree simplification of the Gurdjieff teaching that one's "level of being" attracts one's life. The term "I" assumes one level of being; Gurdjieff made no such assumption. In his own allegorical way, he held with the dogma of original sin and the brokenness of our humanity.

Another example not cited by Dickow is the symbol Gurdjieff arguably originated, the Enneagram (left). At right now, you can purchase 314 books with "Enneagram" in the title. Virtually all of these are third- or fourth-generation imitators of what, in the original, is an extraordinarily robust visual summary of the Gurdjieff teaching.

It was in the late 1960s that the teachings begotten by Gurdjieff, Suzuki, Krishnamurti, et al., flowered in the hothouse of countercultural rebellion against certainties political as well as spiritual. These teachings went mainstream; when "my generation" wasn't sucking on hookahs and listening to "White Rabbit," or striking against the war in Vietnam, we were all agog over the spiritual news from the East.

We got over it. The joke of my generation is that we turned the world upside-down, then most of us went straight. The joke of the next generation, today's "New Agers," is that they thought they discovered what we had already sampled and many of us had abandoned, at least those of us who went to work for Goldman Sachs and had 1.7 children.

Something else happened in the next generation, however, which runs completely counter to the New Age: an evangelical revival of traditional Christianity in the most secular country on earth, the United States. With the remarkable force transmitted by the papacy of John Paul II, backed up by the genial teaching of Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has been revitalized—potentially rediscovering the meaning of Vatican II and magnetizing such unlikely converts as . . . well, me.

So I'm not going to worry too much about the latest pablum being served up by New Agers, no matter how many books they sell. Ages will continue to come and go, but my money says, the Church will still be standing.

Thanks to Boston Catholics Who Came Before

I have often thought that I owe a debt to Katie's Irish Catholic ancestors who helped populate our region north of Boston beginning around 1900. Now that I am reading Boston Catholics by historian Thomas H. O'Connor, however, I realize that my debt is far greater than I ever suspected. I have only read to 1900 so far, but here are some of the IOU's I've rung up already.
  • In Boston, as elsewhere, Catholics began as the enemy. The reasons, when not driven by blind prejudice, were political and military. In simple terms, France and England vied for North America. So for the largely English (Protestant) population of pre-Revolutionary Boston, the threat came from the French (Catholic) population of Canada to the north. The French and Indian Wars lasted a long time (1689–1763), so several generations of Bostonians grew up with the equation French = Catholic = bad. It took courage to be a Catholic in Boston.
  • Here's just one example from O'Connor, which sounds almost comical now but clearly wasn't at the time: “During the winter of 1731–32, Boston was thrown into a minor panic when the rumor circulated that there was a Roman Catholic priest in town who was planning to celebrate a Mass for the local Papists on March 17—it being ‘what they call St. Patrick's Day.’ Governor Jonathan Belcher immediately prepared to put into force the Massachusetts anti-priest law, and issued a warrant to the sheriff, the deputy sheriff, and the constables of Suffolk County authorizing them to break into dwelling houses, shops, or any other ‘Places or apartments’ in tracking down and apprehending any ‘Popish Priest and other Papists of his Faith and Perswasion.’”
  • The Revolution helped turn this around. The rebelling colonies tried to forge alliances with their old enemy, Catholic Canada, because Catholic Canada was now the enemy of their enemy, the British! 
  • The first public Mass in Boston was celebrated in 1788, or about 160 years after Englishmen, led by John Winthrop, began settling the peninsula.
  • Boston's first priest arrived two years later, in 1790. That priest, Father Rousselet, and the next two Boston priests of significance, Fathers Cheverus and Matignon, were all French, trained in French seminaries. 
  • Those early priests covered a lot of territory, as the Boston diocese comprised all six New England states, and there are accounts of several priestly visits to Indian communities in eastern Maine that had been originally converted by Jesuit missionaries from France and had no priests of their own. All visits were by horse-drawn coach, of course; the Maine Turnpike was still far in the future.
  • The second bishop of Boston, following Cheverus, was Benedict Joseph Fenwick, a native-born American who began his clerical career in Baltimore. In Peabody, next door to Beverly, the Catholic high school, Bishop Fenwick, is named for him. Fenwick came to Boston and was consecrated bishop in 1825, about the time the first, smallest wave of Irish immigration was taking hold. The English government, deep in debt following its long war against Napoleon as well as the War of 1812, had put a financial stranglehold on Irish landowners, and many were forced by economic circumstances to emigrate.
  • This first wave of Irish Catholics in Boston was not warmly welcomed. O'Connor cites many outbreaks of violence against them in the 1820s and 1830s, some better known than others. There were: bands of marauding youths breaking windows and even destroying whole houses in the Irish-Catholic sections of the city near the waterfront in the summer of 1825; the notrious Ursuline convent fire of August 1834, set ablaze by an anti-Catholic mob although nuns and their young female charges were known to be inside (they all escaped, but no damages were ever paid); and the Broad Street Riot of June 1837, when a company of Yankee firemen clashed with a Catholic funeral procession, and the entire city almost was consumed in violence before the state militia restored order.
  • Famous New Englanders like Samuel F. B. Morse, of code fame, and the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, actively stirred up hatred against Irish Catholics with so-called nativist publications and sermons. 
  • Meanwhile, following the lead of Bishops Fenwick and Fitzgerald, his successor, Boston Catholics founded such institutions as The Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper still in publication today, and both the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester) and Boston College, all by the time of the Civil War.
  • The potato blight that began in 1845-1846 dramatically swelled the Irish influx to Boston. Previously, about five thousand Irish had arrived in Boston each year. In 1847, thirty-seven thousand arrived, and that was just the beginning. These immigrants did not find pleasant accommodations in Boston. They lived in hovels and tenements along the Boston waterfront, those that had homes at all, and they accepted the most menial and degrading labor available, when it was available. Meanwhile, Bishop Fitzpatrick built churches and laid all the plans for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Completed after Fitzpatrick's death, the cathedral is almost as large as Notre Dame in Paris.
  • The Know-Nothings of 1854 were a mercifully short-lived but nonetheless vicious national outbreak of Catholic hating. You can Google them.
  • James Augustine Healy, a priest of African-American heritage (his mother was a slave), became first chancellor of Boston in 1855. In 1875, he would become bishop of Portland, Maine, the first African American bishop in the history of the Church. 
  • The Revolution had changed native Bostonians' attitudes toward Catholics, then mostly French. The Civil War helped do the same for Boston and its Irish. Like the "Glory regiment," which had demonstrated the courage and loyalty of black Americans in the Union Army, the Massachusetts Ninth, an all-Irish volunteer regiment, proved that Irish Catholics could be good Americans too. 
  • Another mark of Irish acceptance in Boston: Bishop John Fitzpatrick was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard College in 1861. 
  • Archbishop John Joseph Williams, consecrated 1866, looms over the final decades of the 19th century in Catholic Boston. During this period, an entirely different wave of immigration upset the delicate social balance achieved by Protestant Boston and its Irish newcomers. Now, the influx was from southern and eastern Europe, including many Jews of course, but also including large numbers of Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian Catholics. These had to be assimilated not only into Boston proper, but into the Boston diocese, as each new ethnic group wanted its own churches and its own priests.
  • Despite these pressures, this was the age of great advance in Catholic social institutions with the building of schools, orphanages, and three major Catholic hospitals. All were staffed by a huge new population of Catholic women religious, who outnumbered the total of priests, brothers, and seminarians in the archdiocese by two to one. The two largest communities were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (an important presence in our parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea) and the Sisters of St. Joseph. 
  • It was in the last two decades of the 19th century that a conflict arose that foreshadows much of the Catholic politics of our day: a basic tension between Americanists (who thought the American church and its bishops should have wide latitude to create a uniquely American brand of Catholicism) and Romanists (who wanted to adhere strictly to dictates of the Vatican). 
I'll close with a quote from O'Connor that seems to me one of the most cogent explanations why the Catholic faith argues for a Republican-style, non-interventionist government system:

It was the general belief of both priests and their congregations that such social problems as poverty, crime, homelessness, illegitimacy, and alcoholism were not the results of any particular defect of society. They were, instead, the inevitable consequences of either individual weakness or personal immorality, usually resulting from a lack of religious faith. The solution to such problems, therefore, lay in promoting a spirit of moral self-control and personal self-discipline on the part of the less fortunate, not in passing a series of laws or in creating a complex system of secular institutions. 

Along these same lines, it was a traditional Catholic view that for the public sector to take over the dispensing of charity would be to deprive the ordinary Catholic of an important, if not essential, source of spiritual grace. The ability to gain salvation, according to Church doctrine, lay not only in faith but also in good works. For government agencies or public institutions to take over the care of the poor, the abandoned, the elderly, and the homeless would be to deprive individual Catholics of the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity and thereby gain grace.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanks to Father Barnes and his Father

Our pastor, Father Barnes, is a superb preacher. He never works from notes, yet even at daily Mass he manages in a few short minutes to improvise a cogent message from the readings and Gospel, a message I can grab and take with me through my day. On Sundays he moves to another level, preaching at four Masses, clearly with much preparation but still without notes—yet always, it seems, hitting the ten or twelve bullet points he has set for himself. I often attend two of the four masses, once as a parishioner in the pew, once as a singer in the choir, and I'm always amazed how organized, yet fresh each new version of his message is.

Today, for Christ the King—Well, don't get me started on the choir. As we began to rehearse an hour early, at 9:30, I texted Katie: "Big choir today with pro singers and timpani!" It was my first chance to sing for an all-stops-out service like this one. Nothing less than a heart- and mind-blower.

But the homily: Today, I have a lot to take with me, and the purpose of this post is mostly so that I will remember a small fraction of the message. 

Father Barnes began by noting that "in a few minutes" we would be saying lines from the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. . . . ” And he made the clear connection between Jesus as king and Jesus as judge. He said that in our culture, almost the last sin anyone is willing to talk about is "the sin of judging," of being judgmental. In fact, he went on, not only do we have to judge to survive (crossing the street: will that car hit me or not?) but we have to judge to be saved. 

Ultimately we have to judge our lives by one standard; we have to judge our lives by Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega. Father Barnes went on talking about the standards we commonly judge ourselves by, and I thought of the standards that have applied in my life: In childhood, there was quickness in the classroom, speed in foot races, and (mostly) the judgments of others, whether adults or childhood friends. In adolescence, a new set of metrics applied. I judged myself by grades, SAT scores, and certain body measurements, including but not limited to the circumference of my biceps. In young adulthood, in middle age—and so on. Dollars, percentage increases, accolades, dollars . . . We all know the standards. 

Meanwhile, we all forget The Standard: Jesus Christ. 

Father Barnes told a wonderful story about his father, a retired cop in a small city south of Boston and, to hear our pastor tell it, anything but a theologian. But Officer Barnes had the last word today. 

Father Barnes recalled that in his childhood, his family of five always sat in the same pew, adjacent to the first Station of the Cross: Jesus before Pilate. One day his father, the non-theologian, surprised the young priest-in-the-making, by saying that he always enjoyed sitting in this spot, right next to Pilate. Why? his son asked. Because, the father of our father answered, Pilate had the King of the World in front of him, and he thought he was king. How could he have been so stupid? It's a good reminder, his dad went on, to realize that just when we think we're so smart, we're anything but.

It was the kind of homely example that Father Barnes so often uses to drive a point home. Jesus Christ is King of the universe—but is he King of my heart? And if so, when will I get the message and carry it with me, through this day and all the remaining days of my life?

For Minor Miracles II

As my father lay dying and as I sat one night by his side, reading the Liturgy of the Hours, an angel appeared in the room. This is how it happened.

I had been a Catholic less than six months; in fact, Dad would die six months to the day following my reception into the Church. He had been admitted to a hospice in Connecticut at the end of August, on the day following his 58th wedding anniversary. Mom and each of us six kids and several of the eleven grandkids were visiting him in shifts. September was moving toward the first day of autumn.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Because . . . Gosh, Sometimes I'm Just Not Sure

There really are times when we Catholics give Protestantism a good name. In men's group today, one of our most learned members read from a chapter on Mary in the Apocrypha, from The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary by George H. Tavard. At the end, I could all but feel the pain of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

We human beings can complicate things so much. Mary, as presented in the four Gospels, is the slightest of characters. After the infancy narratives we hear her say of Jesus at Cana, "Do whatever he tells you," or words to that effect, and she never speaks again. She's there at the Cross, she's there in the upper room. But the most important scene of any biography is not given to us for Mary: her death, where, when, and how.

These matters—and so much more, to judge by this morning's reading—are given to us by tradition, some of which comes from the Apocrypha or, rather, as Bill (left) referred to it, the Epigrapha. The Apocrypha are the books that the Protestant “reformers,” Luther et al, left out of the canon, conveniently to their arguments. The Epigrapha are the books that were never in the canon to begin with, left out by the early Councils that decided the canon.  

The names of Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim? They come not from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but from the Proto-Gospel of James. Tavard calls this Epigraphal book “orthodox in doctrine,” but not orthodox enough apparently to be accepted as part of the canon. How about the feast days the Church celebrates to honor Mary—the Presentation, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, yes, even the Birth of Mary? None of these are given to us in the Gospels.

I know that I am stating the obvious for many readers, who are far better versed in these things than I am. And before I get over my head in waters where I cannot swim, I'm going to back out and just sit on the beach for a think.

Because when you start diving deep in these waters, considering the many accounts that are not canon and considering the Councils, composed of eminently human bishops, who gathered the canon, you can be overwhelmed with doubt: What do we really know? On whose word do we know it? And did they know it, or only argue, or suppose it? And so on.

I know Ferde will be all over me for this one. His e-mail signature reads: “Ferde. If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.” And while I'm not sure about the doctrine of papal infallibility, I can tell you pretty categorically that I do believe in Ferde's infallibility.

But I am not Ferde, and I am still on the beach, brushing off the sand and shaking my head. What I come back to is the Gospel, to the simple accounts of Mary there, and finally to virtually the only words she ever seems to have said, at least in anyone's hearing: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Christ tells us what to do in the Gospels and nowhere else. Everything else is after the fact. Everything else is canon, deuterocanon, Apocrypha, Epigrapha, orthodoxy, tradition . . . Do I believe that the Holy Spirit guided each and every one of these deliberations? Or do I instead see some merit in the notion of Sola Scriptura, held by Luther and the boys?

I gotta tell you, right now, I don't know. I'm just sitting on the sand (pretty cold here in New England this time of year) and I'm shaking my head.

But I'll be back at Mass in the morning.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening Meeting of the YIM Catholic Book Club, "Orthodoxy," Chapter 1

Katie belongs to a book club that meets once a month on Thursdays. Oprah—well, we know about Oprah and books. I think it's high time for YIM Catholic to host a book club, and I propose meeting every Thursday evening. So let's begin immediately, with Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

The YIM Catholic Book Club (YIMCBC) will take one chapter a week, nothing too strenuous. The format is simple: I'll provide a very brief summary and then offer some personal comments, reflections, and so on. Then you'll use comments to keep the discussion going until next week. Sound good?

Chapter 1, Introduction, "In Defense of Everything Else"

Chesterton begins and ends this short opening chapter laughing at himself—as someone “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation,” and as the author of “a sort of slovenly autobiography.” He claims the book is being written in response to a critic. It all seems like a pose.

But inside the pose and at the heart of the chapter is an evocative tale that can be read on several levels of meaning: A British yachtsman, Chesterton writes, “slightly miscalculated his course” and, in search of an exotic port of call, landed in England, where he began. According to Chesterton, the yachtsman thought England both exotic and familiar.

Chesterton is the yachtsman. Like every thinking, feeling human, Chesterton and the yachtsman want a life of what he calls “practical romance,” one in which one feels simultaneously “astonished” and “at home.” Also, like other English intellectuals of his era (late 19th–early 20th century), like H. G. Welles and G. B Shaw, for two examples, Chesterton confesses that he wanted to be in the avant garde of modern thought. Instead he found himself embracing the oldest, most orthodox creed of all, the Apostles' Creed. The book, he says, will explain why.

My comment here is brief: Like Chesterton in the late 19th century, I took such a journey, in the late 1960s, setting out for the exotic only to find myself, 40 years later, back home in England. I left the known confines of the Episcopal Church when I went away to boarding school, and I began to sample the spiritual smorgasbord then available. I read, and in some cases tried to apply the insights of (in alphabetical order) Baha’i, the Gurdjieff Work, Sufism, Swedenborgianism, Yoga, and Zen. I know I'm leaving things out, but I promised brief.

Now, 40 years later, I find myself very much back in England, though Rome is more to the point. Where Episcopalianism offered a cheeseburg and fries, Catholicism provides a full gourmet dinner built around filet mignon (medium, please) and capped off with my favorite dessert, angel food cake, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries. But the main course is still just beef.

Not only do I find myself back where I started, but drawing on Chesterton's great metaphor, I find tremendous romance in the ordinary dailiness of my Catholic life. I used to look at the red brick façade of my church (left) from a mental distance and think, Oh, nice. I used to watch parishioners streaming into St. Mary Star of the Sea every Sunday and think, Oh, Catholics.

Today, I understand that this Church and these parishioners—all on the main street of the town I've called home for 35 years—offer me greater riches than the caves of Ali Baba. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it's true, and what's more I'm tired, and I'm turning over the rest of this meeting to you, fellow YIMCBC members!

Have you read Orthodoxy? If so, what do you think of Chesterton's opening chapter? (And if not, it's only six pages long and you have a week to catch up!)

For the Sixteen Children in My Religious Ed Class

Right away, I knew this class would be different. It wasn't the post I wrote about it yesterday morning. It was that for the first time in eight weeks of after-school religious education, every child was present and accounted for; and the boys were all sitting in the front rows, the girls in the back.

You expect the boys and girls to segregate themselves in a class of fourth-graders. But you don't expect the boys to be sitting in front and raising their hands like mad men every time the teacher asks a question. OK, N. and T. seldom raise their hands, too busy talking about Pop Warner Football or something, and C. and K. do so only grudgingly. But every other boy was, like, "Me! Me! Me! Mr. Bull, let me answer that one!"

Is there something that needs saying here about men needing to witness to boys about their faith? I don't take credit for any of this. I don't even know how I got roped into teaching religious ed on Wednesday afternoons after school. But fact is, except for a seminarian who drives out from Boston every week to teach a class, I am the only male teacher out of a complement of maybe twelve.

I know, guys work at the office, can't be in school at 3:30 p.m., but so do many gals, and don't guys and gals knock off early to see their kids play soccer? And there are retired guys, aren't there? And guys in school (college, postgrad) who have, let's face it, cushy schedules, and spend more time staring at their navels in the coffee shop than staring at their books? And how about home office guys, like me, who can make their own schedules? We can be so critical and, let's be honest, so suspicious of priests who give their whole lives to evangelization and catechesis. Couldn't a few of us guys—guys blessed with loving wives, guys who go home to a good meal and a bed that isn't empty—give up an hour a week to teach young boys and girls about the Lord?

This was the day we talked about The Lord's Prayer. I had the prayer written out on the board, with blanks for all the key words. For example, Our ______________ who art in _____________. I challenged the children to fill in the blanks, out loud, one word at a time, but said the answer would be incomplete without an explanation of what the word means. So we ended discussing things like, Why do we call God Father instead of Mother, and, Where exactly is heaven? I knew that A., our cosmologist, would have an idea about heaven. When we discussed Creation in an earlier class, she had a lot to say about the Big Bang.

There were predictable moments: Of course, no one knew what hallowed means, or even that it has an -ed at the end. Hallow? Hollow? Halloween? Which of course is pretty close, in a way, since Halloween is All Hallows Eve, or the eve of All Saints Day, and hallowed means saintly, or holy. But of course that's the associative thinking of a college-educated adult male who had ten years in Sunday school, not the thought process of a contemporary fourth grader whose idea of the four Gospel writers may associate with the four Teletubbies.

There are always surprises, too. S. is a willowy waif of a girl with a voice like a faint breeze who sits in the corner farthest from me. I've learned not to be surprised by S. When she raises her hand, I know that I need to acknowledge her immediately, moving halfway across the classroom to catch what she has to say, in little more than a whisper, because it's usually on the mark. S. is the sort of child who can get lost in a class like this, and I'm determined to help find her. Yesterday (it was getting late in the prayer and the hour), no one could come up with any sort of definition of temptation. Finally, S.'s hand went up and I asked her to repeat her answer three times as I moved toward her and finally got close enough to hear her words: “Temptation is like when you're walking home from school and a man pulls over in a car and offers you candy and tells you to get into the car.” Exactly. S. was connecting the dots, recalling a movie about childhood safety all the grades had watched together a few weeks back.

Then there is M., a reverent boy with a mild speech impediment whom I've observed at Sunday Mass. (It's not clear how many of these kids go to Mass with any regularity, but M. does, I know.) When we arrived at, Give us this day our _________________, M. not only had "daily bread," but spoke of it as the Eucharist. I wanted to shout, Hallelujah!

I had given the class a homework assignment the week before, to find and bring in the shorter form of The Lord's Prayer that is reported by Luke. As usual, M., our Mass-goer and (I like to think) junior seminarian, did the homework, no one else.

After the bell rang, and the rest of the class had run off to the parking lot, I helped C. find a new copy of the class workbook. He had lost his and his mother told me he didn't want to come to school without it. C. is the boy who, during the first class, asked to get a drink of water eight times. I thought he was testing me. We negotiated it down to four times, I think. Now, he doesn't ask anymore, and I like to think he's getting something out of the class.

A final note. I had lunch with Father Barnes yesterday and, as he reads this blog, we ended talking about The Lord's Prayer. Last evening, he sent me a sort of meditation on the prayer from a book by Blessed Columba Marion. It's worth sharing, especially in connection with children, which we are too:

O Father,
Holy One who art in heaven,
we are your children, seeing that you
wish to be called our Father!

Hallowed, honored, glorified,
be your name.

May your perfections be praised and
exalted more and more on earth: may
we, by our works, manifest in ourselves
the splendor of your grace.

Widen, then, your reign; may it constantly
increase, this Kingdom--which is also
that of your Son, in that you have
constituted Him as its head.

May your Son be truly the King of our souls.
May we express this kingship in us by the
perfect accomplishment of your will;
may we seek constantly, like Him,
to adhere to you by carrying out
your good pleasure, your Eternal thought
concerning us, so that in all things
we may be like your Son Jesus,
and be, through Him,
children worthy
of your love!