Releasing the Birds

21 Jul

Look at that. A little allegory of the soul.
~ Dr. E.M. Ashford

“It’s a bird emergency! It’s a bird emergency!”

The kids outside the parish center were frantic. I was dropping off my own children for an activity, and those already there had spotted some birds trapped in a window on the second floor.

“There’s no way to get them out,” someone lamented. “And there’s already bird skeletons up there!”

Sure enough, in addition to the agitated living birds, a few tiny bird skeletons were also visible in the enclosed window sill – obvious evidence that this was a recurring problem.8AHdx

The parish center’s windows are original to the building, but the storm windows were added much later, and they aren’t exactly a tight fit. That second-story window is a case in point: There was a gap between the two lower sashes, large enough to allow small birds to clamber in, but not quite big enough for them to spread their wings and escape.

I urged the kids to settle down, and I told them I’d go up and take a look. It seemed to me that it would be pretty easy to pull down the upper sash, and then reach over to raise the outside storm window in order to set the birds free. Needless to say, like so many of my “seems-pretty-easy” plans, this one hit a snag.

It seemed like time, humidity, and dirt had all ganged up to ensure the immobility of that upper part of the window. It was stuck solid, but with the kids all clamoring below, I felt like I had to do something. “Maybe if I just tapped a bit around the jamb,” I thought to myself. “It might loosen it up enough to open.” Tap, tap, tap….


The aging glass pane broke out suddenly, and multiple fragments fell to the bushes below. Fortunately, the children were positioned well away from the side of the building in order to better observe the rescue, so no one was hurt or even endangered. Nevertheless, it was a big surprise, and we all froze for a moment.

The chirping birds still imprisoned between the lower panes woke me up, and then I realized the accident afforded me an opportunity. I reached through the broken glass, pulled up on the storm window, and the birds fluttered away. Cheers erupted below, and, for a moment, I was a hero – a bird hero!

Funny thing, though, I hadn’t set out to be a bird hero, but rather to calm the frazzled nerves of an assembly of bird enthusiasts. Plus, my mission was only accomplished accidentally, and if the pane hadn’t broken, I’m not sure what I would’ve done.

The rescue was accomplished, nonetheless, and the children, consciences at peace and satisfied with the dramatic dénouement, returned to their activity. I cleaned out the rest of the broken pane as best I could, stuffed a rolled up mat in the open gap, and headed downstairs to pick up all the glass fragments from the shrubs. It will come as no surprise that I cut myself in the process.

Later, driving home with my family, the whole episode was thoroughly reviewed. “That was awesome,” Cecilia exclaimed. “All the kids think you’re a super-dad!” The praise was flattering, but I demurred, reminding them that the window broke by accident. “It’s funny, tst-francis-preaching-to-the-birds-1299hough,” remarked Joan, “Will predicted it in a way.” Young William, a passionate bird fan, apparently had insisted that “releasing the birds is the most important thing,” even if it meant breaking a window.

And, it turned out, Will was right! “Too bad we didn’t capture it all on video,” I suggested, revealing my banal tendencies. “We’d have a viral YouTube hit on our hands.”

“I was thinking we could turn it into a play,” observed Joan, more astutely. “It was like an allegory, don’t you think?”

Why, yes, I guess she’s right. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a similar idea in his treatment of St. Francis’ sermon to the birds:

Up soared the lark into the air,
A shaft of song, a wingéd prayer,
As if a soul released from pain
Were flying back to heaven again.

Bird=soul; transparent enclosure=sin; struggling with stuck window sash=our futile human efforts.

And the shattering glass? A sign of God, of course, unexpected and unprecedented, mowing down whatever gets in the way of our salvation – petty habits, selfishness, pride most of all. He smashes and pulverizes, if it’s required. The gates of hell will not prevail!

Yet we complain: Broken glass is dangerous – we get cut, we bleed, we risk infection, severe hemorrhage, death! Isn’t there another way?

No! Smash the enclosure! Free the captives! Let them all flutter away!

It’s like Will said: Releasing the birds is the most important thing. Even if it means breaking a window.

Wheaton’s Catholic Speakeasy

13 Jul

You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading
G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic.
~ Ross Douthat



That’s what it should say outside Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center. If C.S. Lewis is a gateway drug to Catholicism, then the Wade Center’s promotion of Lewis and those who influenced him is equivalent to an evangelical opium den. At least it was for me.

Growing up in an evangelical milieu, I discovered C.S. Lewis early on by way of his Narnia tales. I can well remember the rush of wonder and delight that accompanied my exploration of that world of talking animals and moral nuance. Like so many, I ripped through all seven books one after another with hardly a pause in between, and then had to endure the vacuum created at the end when there was no more. Occasionally books will distress us because of how they end, but rarely because they end at all. The Narnia saga ranks in the latter category.cs_lewis_writing

After Narnia came Screwtape I think, and then The Great Divorce. I was in high school by the time I got around to reading the Space Trilogy, and somewhere along the way Mere Christianity. That whet my appetite for Lewis’ nonfiction, and I began dipping into more as I went off to college, particularly the wide ranging essays in God in the Dock.

What did Lewis teach me? First, a deep appreciation and anticipation of the supernatural – what Regis Martin calls the “numinous.” The numinous core of Lewis’ stories frequently even evoked a palpable response. Think of that tingly sensation you got as a kid when you faced the unknown – like when you went to summer camp for the first time, or your first mission trip overseas. It was a bit of fear, a bit of excitement, all tangled up with the sense that something important was at work. Moreover, encounters with the numinous in Lewis’ work are always mediated through encounters with things. The supernatural is never merely an abstraction in his stories – not just an idea or concept – but rather something incarnated and, consequently, something his characters bump into and trip over.

Lewis also introduced me to the idea of purgatory, and, through that, a much more profound desire for heaven. Through his stories and explanations, he showed me that Christianity went beyond avoiding sin and hell, and was ultimately about embracing a fullness of life, love, and joy. Lewis took the biblical Christianity that I’d been raised in and made it inhabitable – like that scene in the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children first gaze upon the painting of a wild sea, and then are actually drawn into it.

That was all harmless enough as far as it went. However, the more I read Lewis, the more I wanted to know about him, and by the time I got to Wheaton College, I marion-wade-center-sidewas primed for the kind of Catholic correlations that the Wade Center seems designed to elicit.

Back then, the Center was housed in an out-of-the-way corner of the library, and I recall some of that tingly sensation as I tracked it down one day. Among other things, I’d heard that they had various Lewis artifacts, including his Oxford desk and chair and the actual Lewis family wardrobe – the very furnishing that undoubtedly influenced the genesis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. These were only “things,” to be sure, but they serve to connect the visitor with the author himself. And this, in turn, underscores the “thinginess” featured in Lewis’ writing – a sacramental vision of connecting with the unseen through the seen, with the ethereal by way of the concrete. For Lewis, ordinary things and events were never merely incidental. Instead, they were noble vehicles of grace and truth and revelation.

Even more significant for me, however, were the other six authors spotlighted by the Center: George Macdonald and Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and, of course, G.K. Chesterton. The Wade Center’s main focus is unquestionably C.S. Lewis, but the others are featured as well because of their influence on or relationship to Lewis. They had their differences, but altogether they had a rich, incarnational vision of what the Christian life was about.

Thus, a visit to the Wade Center allows the seeker a chance to linger in the literary presence of all seven of these great British writers and thinkers. Just to be there – among their manuscripts and letters, portraits and paraphernalia – was to drink in, as it were, their grand vision of the Christian life and to become intoxicated with their convictions about faith as an adventure. These were heady influences for a young, impressionable undergraduate, and they were equally heady when I returned years later for a day trip from my new home at the Chicago Catholic Worker.

It was a confusing time for me, and my faith was in crisis. I had firsthand knowledge that my Catholic Worker friends were living the Gospel and clearly followers of Jesus. But they were…well, Catholic, and I couldn’t bring myself to seriously entertain formally joining their ranks, despite my inclinations. There were too many unanswered questions, too many practices that didn’t make sense, and lots of doctrine that didn’t seem to square with the Bible. What to do?

So, who better to turn to than my mentors at the Wade Center, and I took the train out to Wheaton for a draught or two of their inebriating influence.

While there, I was particularly drawn to the Chesterton collection. I’d read a few of his works – The Man Who Was Thursday, for instance, and Orthodoxy – and I knew that Chesteron’s apologetics were instrumental in Lewis’ own religious NPG P1318; Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton by Herbert Lambertconversion. Plus, there was that curiosity that Chesterton himself had become a Catholic after having embraced Anglicanism for a time, so what was that about?

The librarian – the Wheaton librarian, mind you – directed me to Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion, in which the author humbly laid out a defense of his ecclesial switch. I couldn’t read it all that day, but I read enough to convince me that I needed to track down a copy when I got back to Chicago – which I did with no little difficulty (in the days before Amazon and the internet).

There’s no way I could adequately summarize Chesterton’s masterful arguments and magnificent illustrations here, but suffice it to say he had me hooked. He didn’t attempt to defend individual Catholic doctrines or practices, but instead defended the idea that they could indeed be defended. He insisted that being a Catholic was reasonable and good. He provided example after example of the Church’s internal consistency and lucidity, and challenged the reader to test them for himself. And, finally, in the end, Chesterton made it plain that he could see no other way forward.

But if a convert is to write of conversion he must try to retrace his steps out of that shrine back into that ultimate wilderness where he once really believed that this eternal youth was only the “Old Religion.”…The difficulty was expressed to me by another convert who said, “I cannot explain why I am a Catholic; because now that I am a Catholic I cannot imagine myself as anything else.”

G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization is now in process, and it may well be that the interest generated by the investigation could blow the cover off of Wheaton’s underground Catholic hideaway.

In any case, if all goes well, we’ll all be visiting the Wade Center as pilgrims someday – to gaze on Chesterton’s correspondence and possibly even venerate volumes from his personal library as so many relics. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Imagine it! Wheaton College, a Catholic pilgrimage destination! C.S. Lewis, I trust, would be pleased.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Steering Fluid, Grace, and Conversion

5 Jul

Faith comes not through pondering but through action.
We never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting.
~ Tito Colliander

1989-honda-accord-sedan-lx-pic-58829“It’s too hard to steer,” my teen daughter complained. “I can’t do it.”

Nobody likes my decrepit Honda. Among other things, it leaks power steering fluid like a sieve, and so it can be tough to muscle the wheel in traffic. I’ll splurge from time to time and fill up the reservoir. It’s a treat, and it works like magic: When the reservoir is full – voila! – smooth sailing! But after a couple days, the fluid starts to dwindle, and turning the steering wheel can be like arm-wrestling with a titan.

“Try releasing the brake and moving forward a bit,” I tell her. “The wheel will be a lot easier to turn.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. We’re already close by the curb, and there’s not a lot of room to maneuver, so it seems like we have to get the car heading in the right direction before we get moving, not after.

My daughter grimaces. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she says, but I insist. And, sure enough – lo and behold – it works! She releases the brake, the car starts to inch forward, and she directs the car away from the curb with little effort.

This is not a story about a dad being vindicated in his wise, fatherly counsel – although that would be nice. It’s also not a story about why that steering trick works. I imagine it has something to do with force and torque and complicated formulae, but I’m no physicist.

Instead, my Honda’s power steering problem got me thinking about grace and conversion. Here’s why.

In our day-to-day lives, we know that we have to get a move on or nothing will get done – an obvious notion, but so painful to learn when we’re first on our own. Laundry piling up? Sink clogged with dirty dishes? Empty fridge? Second (and third) notices from creditors? Once mom and dad aren’t around to handle such matters, we discover real quick that not acting – acts of omission, in other words – have very real consequences, and so we develop habits of action.

This goes for the workaday world as well, beginning with obtaining a job in the first place. Normally, employment doesn’t fall in our laps – we have to get out there and search out who’s hiring, groom ourselves and our résumés appropriately, and take the risk of putting in an application. I say “risk,” of course, because there’s no guarantee that the job will pan out. Still, to sit back and try another video round of zombie-killing will probably not lead to an income. Sooner or later we have to hit the bricks to find an occupation.

But what of the spiritual life? What of conversion and holiness? It’s all grace, right? We’re hypersensitive, we Catholics, to the charge of “works righteousness” – that we’re somehow “earning” our salvation through our good deeds and pious acts – and so we might be extra cautious about claiming any credit for our efforts. Much safer, we might be tempted to think, to scrub our role altogether. God not only gets top billing in that case, but he becomes a one-man-show.

That’s not exactly how it works though – and it might let us off the hook inordinately with regards to our own responsibilities. St. Paul, after all, speaks of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), implying that we do have a role to play and we’d better take it pretty seriously.

This was a big problem for me in my Presbyterian youth. If all faith and conversion was through God’s grace alone, and we had none at all to begin with (as I was taught), then it was just God’s whimsy as to who’d be saved and who’d be damned. Reformed apologists might argue with my simplistic characterization of Calvinist doctrine, but it really did seem like double-predestination – God’john-wesley-1wes planning ahead for the eternal destination of all the souls he created, whether to heaven or to hell – was an inevitable and unenviable conclusion. If that was Christianity’s God, then I was ready to bolt.

Enter John Wesley. Although I was raised a Calvinist, I ended up at a Methodist college and studied theology there. Naturally, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, figured prominently in my studies, and it was through him that I encountered the idea of prevenient grace. This was a common form of grace that a loving God gave to all that all might be saved. Thus, Wesley taught that everyone shared in the very life of God in a tentative way as a preparation for and prompting toward the fullness of that sharing in sanctifying grace.

In one of his most lucid treatments of this idea, Wesley unpacks St. Paul’s words about working out our own salvation and describes a grace that “prevenes” (precedes) the grace that actually saves us. Prevenient grace, according to Wesley, includes…

the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.

That made sense to me! If indeed “God so loved the world,” as St. John asserts, and God gave us Jesus that “whoever believes in him” should be saved, then it must be possible. Prevenient grace fit the puzzle pieces together: We’re still saved by grace alone, but everybody is born with a measure to start off with.

Imagine my surprise years later when I discovered that this is a Catholic doctrine, including the language. The Council of Trent took up the idea in the sixteenth century, but the Council of Orange dealt with it a thousand years before that. Reaching back even further, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine from the fifth century on the subject:

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.”

Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinCatholics don’t generally call it prevenient grace now, and instead lump it in with other forms of actual grace – the grace we receive to act, as opposed to sanctifying grace which saves. But no matter the terminology, the idea is the same: God gives us all that we need to be saved. Grace surrounds us and infuses us even before we know we desire heaven. I like the way St. Catherine of Siena put it: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” We just have to do our part.

So, back to my car’s steering problems.

The simple solution, of course, would be to replace the steering fluid reservoir, but my mechanic, Gary, assures me that it wouldn’t be cost-effective. “You’ll probably just have to get used to driving it without the fluid,” Gary said. So be it. Like I said, occasionally I’ll go wild and top off the reservoir, but it seems so indulgent. For the next day or two, driving seems downright decadent, and so I’m thinking I might purchase a case of Honda power steering fluid for the daughter when she gets her license. She can drive the Accord without it – and even a case won’t last too long, I know – but, at least for a while, it’ll make her driving experience so much easier.

For our spiritual journeys, too, we have all we need to get to our final destination. Prevenient grace gets us going; sanctifying grace fills us with God’s own life; actual graces keep us on the path toward home. What we don’t always have is the fluidity of emotions that we’d like to have along the way – those positive feelings and “movements of the sensitive appetite,” as the Catechism calls them, that give us warm fuzzies in our prayer and spiritual experiences.

Not to worry. We can still steer. The fluidity comes and goes, we have to remember, and we are grateful for it. But when it’s not there, and it seems like our steering is stuck? Release the brake, get moving, and the forward motion will facilitate maneuvering the soul toward heaven again. “The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man” (CCC 2002). We inch forward with little direction – and often with no warm feelings either – and he grabs us and pulls us along.

Counterintuitive, I know, but – lo and behold – it works! It’s as if he designed it that way.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Pope’s Jest

20 Jun

Originally posted on One Thousand Words a Week:


Life is serious all the time,
but living cannot be serious all the time.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Read more…

View original

Go Ahead and Ask!

1 Jun

Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum,
sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea (CCC 1386).


You’re probably not supposed to mark if people go up for Holy Communion. You probably should be so swept up in the liturgy, or your own mystical, pre-Communion reveries, that the movements of your pew neighbors (or lack thereof) don’t even come close to penetrating your consciousness.6320741693_9af36ca823_z

But, admit it, you do notice. What’s more, you start remembering the faces of those who never get in line – not even for a blessing.

They come to Mass week after week – sometimes even daily – and they appear riveted on the unfolding drama of the altar. Often they sit toward the back of church, often alone, but their posture and their affect have pent-up energy, as if they’d shoot forward into the sanctuary if something wasn’t holding them back. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it’s evident they’re not refusing the Eucharist because they don’t believe in it, but because they do.

Should you reach out to them? Should you introduce yourself and inquire about their reluctance to receive the Lord? Or should you mind your own damn business.

Self: Remember.

Remember that you were one of those pew-warmers for a time. Remember that you came to church every Sunday, but your messy, complicated life kept you from the Eucharist. Remember, too, that one day, a complete stranger – an elderly lady who’d never come to your attention before – approached you after WINGS_OF_DESIRE_SE-21Mass. She was kind and gently asked about your reluctance to receive. Remember that she suggested you go talk to the priest about whatever it was that held you back.

She was an apostle that day – an emissary of the Lord, a messenger, possibly even an angel. Whoever or whatever she was, she brought you back to the Sacraments, and thus back to Christ. She took a risk and minded another’s own damn business – your business – and thank God she did. Doubt not that she was an instrument of your salvation that day.

So, self, ask for God’s help and discernment, and take heart. Bravely approach those pew-sitters as the Spirit leads you. Be kind, encourage them, and keep them in your prayers.

You may end up an instrument yourself, who knows? In any case, there’s no better way of making good on that stranger’s risky gesture of love so long ago.

Novena to St. Jude

18 May

Must be said 6 times each day,
For 9 consecutive days,
Leaving 9 copies in Church each day.



Sound familiar? Of course!

You’ve seen it many times: Photocopies of photocopies, usually in small stacks, scattered here and there in church – at the end of pews, stuck in the hymnal racks, or back in the vestibule with the bulletins and pamphlets. They’ll appear and disappear depending on when they’re left – and when the janitoStJudeLeafletrs get around to pitch ‘em.

I love those little prayers – I freely admit it! Yes, they’re like spiritual comfort food – junk food, really – and so we’re reluctant to fess up to praying them, or anything like them. With their elaborate directives, they’re the equivalent of heavenly chain letters, and, like chain letters, they make us uneasy – as if we’re doing something wrong; as if we’re guilty of trying to manipulate God to do what we want.

Eh? So what. It’s prayer at its rudimentary best – a child bugging his dad for something – and we could do much worse, as in, let’s say, not pray at all.

And then – BOOM – I got the word from my daughter recently: Prayers like the St. Jude’s Novena are a sin! At least they’ve been declared as much by the good people at the Midwest Theological Forum. They’re the ones who put out Joan’s religion textbook, Our Moral Life in Christ from the Didache series, and it’s there that she directed my attention:

A sin of superstition occurs if one insists that certain prayers be said a particular number of times for an exact number of days in order to obtain favors from God…. These practices are wrong because they attribute the results to the external rituals involved and not to God’s goodness.

I have no beef with the Forum or their Didache series. Our bishop has adopted it for the high schools, and that’s good enough for me. Plus, it has blurbs of support from Scott Hahn and other trusted authorities, and an introduction from Bishop Jerome Listecki, now Archbishop of Milwaukee. And, of course, it goes without saying that the series is published with ecclesiastical approval and conforms with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, I must protest.

The Didache textbook itself refers to novenas and other sacramentals as “legitimate religious devotions,” so that begs the question: What is a novena other than praying “certain” prayers for a “particular number of times” and for an “exact number of days?” The word itself – novena – is derived from the Latin for “nine,” and refers to the exact number of days the Apostles and Our Lady prayed between the Ascension and Pentecost.apostle-st-thaddeus-jude

So, then, is it the objective of obtaining “favors from God” that make the St. Jude’s Novena a sin? There again, I’m wondering what a novena is if it’s not a persistent badgering of the Father to do what we think He should do.

In any event, Jesus Himself tells us to pray that way – nagging, hounding, not taking ‘no’ for an answer:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything’?

I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs (emphasis added).

Note that Jesus is hinting here that the Lord honors persistence itself – interior disposition isn’t a factor, at least in this story. The Catechism underscores this emphasis as well: “‘Knock, and it will be opened to you.’ To the one who prays like this, the heavenly Father will ‘give whatever he needs,’ and above all the Holy Spirit who contains all gifts.”

Scripture gives us plenty of other examples of this kind of tenacious petitioning – like Abraham cajoling God to ease up on Sodom, Moses doing the same in defense of the golden-calf worshiping Hebrews, and then there’s the classic image of Jacob wrestling with an angel all night for a blessing. “From this account,” the Catechism explains, “the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance.”

One could object that there’s a big difference between steadfastness in prayer and the elaborate mandates that some novenas impose. Consider, then, the healing of Naaman which required his bathing in the Jordan exactly seven times – no more, no less. Or the Israelites’ victory in the Battle of Jericho, involving six daily circumnavigations of the city, and, on the seventh day, a full seven additional circular marches, with precisely seven priests leading the way blowing seven rams’ horns – again, no more, no less. Nobody’s going to dismiss these seemingly arbitrary requirements as superstition.

A pause here to list a couple disclaimers: Clearly, persistent prayer of this sort ought to include a unquestioned deference to God’s will. Even when all the prescripts of a particular novena are followed to the letter, the faithful supplicant will still acknowledge that God might just have something else in mind.

And it follows that outright superstition and magical thinking – that is, using novenas and other sacramentals completely apart from any relationship with God – are to be avoided altogether. Again, the Catechism:

To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.

But our interior dispositions are fickle,and that’s where the value of following a novena to the letter comes in: It’s a reaching out to God and a sign of simple trust, despite the fact that I’m just trying to get my own way.

Here’s a parallel example: My participation at Mass. The Council fathers wrote:

In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain

How do I know I have adequately adored and worshiped at Mass? That I’ve rendered unto the Father the attention and reverence that is His due? That I really cooperated with grace and haven’t receSantaTeresaived it in vain?

Who knows? I can always second-guess my thoughts and aspirations, even when they appear to be pious. Besides, pious or not, my thoughts are only intermittently “attuned” to my voice at Mass since they’re perpetually mixed up with shifting moods, varying degrees of fatigue, and the most mundane of distractions.

Nevertheless, I was there! My mere presence at Mass – even if I’m only fulfilling a Sunday obligation – is a sign of filial submission, however reluctant or imperfect. It’s better than nothing, in other words: It may not be a solid foundation, but it could very well be the few bricks that God desires from me as He shapes and molds me to His liking.

Novenas – even the complicated ones like those photocopies in the pews – are like that: They’re not the highest reaches of prayer, but they’re a place to start – at least they get us actually praying. Who cares if we’re just trying to get God to do what we want? St. Teresa wrote that “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.”

Like I mentioned earlier, it’s like whiny children bugging their dad for stuff. Even when the dad turns them down, isn’t he delighted that they’re coming to him with their requests?

Of course he is.


A version of this story appeared on Oblation.

Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

11 May

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
~ Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion last Sunday – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened a couple nights ago. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading last Thursday about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story on Sunday! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.


Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.


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