Who Prefers to Stay?

30 Aug

“Refuse God nothing ….”
~ St. Jeanne Jugan

Do movie trailers ever make you cry? Here’s one that always gets to me:

Of Gods and Men (2010) tells the story of the Tibhirine martyrs, seven French Trappists who refused to abandon their Algerian monastery during the 1990s’ civil war, despite government requests and offers of assistance. The monks were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in March 1996, and then found dead two months later. The cause of death remains controversial – some say the extremists were responsible; others claim the military accidentally killed the men in a raid – but the fact remains that the monks chose to stay put in the face of tremendous risk.

I recommend the film frequently, and that often involves tracking down the trailer online to forward via email. Invariably, I end up watching the trailer again, and, even though I know it’s coming, I always burst into tears when the prior asks, “Who prefers to stay?” and the monks all raise their hands.

100_0012-h200My tears and sudden surge of emotion associated with that one scene are related to two things I think: The painful drama that unfolds so exquisitely in the film, to be sure, but also my awareness that I probably would’ve chosen differently than the Trappists. I mean, really, who has that kind of courage? I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing I would’ve packed it in long before that episode – maybe a shrug of the shoulders and apologies to my brother monks, but grabbing the first night train outta’ Dodge.

Saints aren’t like that though.

Which brings me to St. Jeanne Jugan – it’s her feast today. In 1839, in Saint-Servan, France, Jugan was inspired to take in an abandoned, infirm elderly woman, giving up her own bed in order to do so. “This was the initial spark that kindled a great blaze of charity,” as the Vatican’s biography of Jugan puts it, and it led to the founding of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international congregation dedicated to the care of the indigent elderly.

Jugan is one of my nursing heroes, and her story (along with Rose Hathorne’s) convinced me to quit my church job some 15 years ago and go to nursing school. What inspired me was her selflessness and humility – I wanted to be like her when I grew up, and I knew it wasn’t an accident that she manifested those traits in the context of caring for the sick. It’s an apostolate that seems to be a constant in the lives of so many saints, at least for a season – which only makes sense. Nursing is exhausting work, demanding and exacting, and if you’re not a praying person when you take it up, you’ll be pleading for God’s help soon enough.

Plus, nursing compels us to turn away from our petty egos and toward the needs of others – note the word “compel.” Selflessness is not something we’re naturally inclined to, we self-absorbed humans, but once we become responsible for doing for others what they can’t do for themselves (the heart of nursing), then there’s no time for fixating reflexively.

It helps in that regard, as Jugan reminds us, that the ill and infirm in our care are really Christ himself in disguise. “My little ones, never forget that the poor are Our Lord,” she was known to say. “In caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus – what a great grace!” In other words, when our human reserves of charity toward our sick patients and neighbors begin to ebb, we can default to that mystical encounter with the hidden Christ and, please God, find our charity replenished.

But it’s not St. Jeanne’s example of heroic charity that leads me to compare her to the Tibhirine Trappists. Instead, it’s what happened to her once the Little Sisters really took off. Due to political maneuvering and ecclesial power brokering, Jugan was forced from her leadership role in 1843, and was reduced to begging on the street to support the order’s work. Then, in 1852, when the congregation gained official recognition by the local church, Jugan was denied even the opportunity to collect alms, and was forced into retirement for the last 27 years of her life.

Outrageous, right? One of the greatest saints of her age, sidelined and practically discarded – much like the very discarded elders she set out to servJeanne_Jugane in her congregation. If it had been me being sidelined, I’m pretty sure I would’ve objected and complained. And then, I probably would’ve advocated for my rights, and insisted on proper recognition and respect.

Not so, St. Jeanne.

In 1879, the congregation’s constitutions were approved by Pope Leo XIII. Ironically, Jugan died later the same year, totally forgotten. By then, the community she’d founded had drawn over 2,000 Little Sisters, and it had established itself throughout Europe and the United States. However, it was only after her death that many members of the community discovered Jugan’s true role as foundress, and her amazing accomplishments were properly acknowledged.

So, I think about those Trappists in Algeria – holy men who dedicated their lives to poverty and isolation and prayer in a foreign land. And I think about Jeanne Jugan – a holy visionary who has touched countless lives through the charitable enterprise she initiated. And, in both cases, I think, “Wasn’t that enough?”

The Trappists were already pouring out their lives in service to their Muslim neighbors and in prayer for the world – to what end their kidnapping and grisly demise? Jugan was already pouring out her life for the elderly and her community – to what end her humiliating ouster and unwarranted exile?

St. Paul directed my attention to a possible answer in today’s first reading:

God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.

Apparently, the lowly Trappists were not lowly enough and had to virtually disappear that the Lord’s designs could be accomplished – and they all volunteered. St. Jeanne, in her outreach to the destitute and forsaken, apparently wasn’t despised enough, and had to likewise disappear – and she went away without resentment.

How do the saints do stuff like that? Jeanne Jugan pointed the way. “To be a good Little Sister of the Poor, one must love God and the poor a great deal, and forget oneself,” she’d tell her sisters. “Little, very little, be very little before God.”

Put another way, “I’m not in charge” – a hard lesson to learn and relearn, over and over, and who better to tutor us in the ways of humility than Jeanne Jugan? But there’s one more final twist. At her 1982 beatification, none other than Pope St. John Paul the Great had this to say about the overlooked and disregarded Jugan: “God could glorify no more humble a servant than she.”

Greatness through obscurity; glory through humility. It’s all so topsy turvey this Gospel stuff.

St. Jeanne, really, pray for us.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Jesus Pulls a Fast One

24 Aug

So, there I am, at a weekday Mass, mind wandering as usual (“Focus, man, focus! You’re at the threshold of heaven, and, um,…what does that guy’s t-shirt say?”), and we get to the Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Right, makes sense. There’s a progression here that both just and prudent – similar to what we do in our nursing program when there’s a complaint about a grade. It’s a subsidiarity thing: Start at the lowest level, closest to the source of the problem, and progress up the chain of command until…

Hey! Wait a doggone minute – hold on there! Did Jesus sneak one past us in that Gospel? The ol’ switcheroo perhaps? A little New Covenant flimflam?

I think so – see if you agree.

Bernardo_Strozzi_-_Christ_and_the_Samaritan_Woman_-_WGA21931The dodge comes in the last line: “…as you would a Gentile of a tax collector.” It’s no secret that this is biblical code for the shunned and disdained – the first century Jewish equivalent of an untouchable caste. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus instructs his followers to treat as outliers those of their number who persistently refuse correction – to be avoided, that is, and held in contempt. Like Gentiles. And tax collectors.

But remember how Jesus treats those guys? Daniel Harrington, S.J., noted this glaring disconnect in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

The designation of the excommunicated member as a Gentile or a tax collector in verse 17 is odd in view of Jesus’ openness to both groups.

Take the Gentiles, for example, the “non-Jews” who were literally outliers with regards to the Covenant God established with his Chosen People. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus seems to come across as cruel and dismissive with regards to Gentiles. When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleads for her child, for instance, Jesus compares her kind to dogs. Elsewhere, he directly charges the disciples to avoid the Gentile riffraff, and to reserve their pearls of preaching for Israel’s lost sheep rather than the outsider swine.

Later, however, Jesus changes his tune. The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a heads up about this shift in tone, for it’s the Samaritan – a Gentile – who ends up being the hero in the story, not the pious Jewish scholar or Pharisee. Then there’s the woman at the well, also a Gentile – and a woman at that, not to mention an unblushing adulteress. Yet, rather than snub her, as a first-century rabbi might’ve been expected to do, Jesus treats her with kindness, compassion, and graciousness – so much so that the Apostles are shocked at his unconventional liberality and comity.

And what about tax collectors? Consider Jesus’ dealings with Zaccheus, a revenue man and a crook – everybody knows it! Even so, JeBrugghen,_Hendrick_ter_-_The_Calling_of_St._Matthew_-_1621sus sees past the man’s record of petty larceny and greed, and recognizes a hungry soul – one that simply requires a bit of affirmation and divine affiliation in order to be pulled over to the side of those seeking righteousness.

Finally, there’s St. Matthew, of course, a tax collector whom Jesus appointed as an apostle – an apostle, for God’s sake! The guy’s supposed to be an outcast, and the Lord appoints him as an apostle!

Plus this tax collector/apostle goes on to write a Gospel, and it’s Matthew who records Jesus’ proscription regarding the unrepentant – that they be relegated to the same status as odious tax collectors – despite being a tax collector himself!

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Lighter Side of Suicide

17 Aug

People rarely joke about suicide.
~ Dr. Aaron Kheriaty

robinThe whole world is mourning Robin Williams. He was a gifted comic; he made people laugh and smile, think and squirm; he shared his talents with the world and the world is better as a result.

Williams’ gift for comedy makes it all the more startling and tragic that he died by his own hand. So, even as we all mourn his death, we’re also talking a lot about suicide, and that’s good because there’s lots to talk about.

Here’s two affirmations of what’s already been said, followed by a somewhat quirky observation.

1. We can’t judge persons who attempt suicide. Many have made this point, including Williams himself. “We all eventually reach the end of our march,” he wrote in a foreword to Lt. Col. Mark Weber’s Tell My Sons. “If you discovered disease was about to cut your life short, no one could rightfully judge you for dropping out of line.”

The pain, the anguish, the hopelessness that drive people to suicide are impossible for others to grasp fully. Only God can, and we can be confident that he does so with infinite tenderness and compassion – it’s the teaching of the Church after all. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives,” the Catechism teaches. “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”Graham-Greene-001

This is the idea captured so well by Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter. After it’s revealed that Henry Scobie’s death was actually suicide, his widow doubts his salvation and her pastor sets her straight.

Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, ‘For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you – or I – know a thing about God’s mercy…. It may seem an odd thing to say – when a man’s as wrong as he was – but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.’

2. The act of suicide is always bad. While we surely can’t judge those who attempt it, we should avoid any confusion as to suicide as an objective evil. This used to be an obvious, commonsense idea, but we no longer have a cultural – or even legal – consensus regarding the act’s repugnance.

Consider the disjointed moralizing that NPR dished out earlier this summer on the subject. It was a story by Alix Spiegel several weeks back about a woman in Oregon who opted for legally sanctioned suicide and got her loved ones involved in the planning. “It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit,” the woman’s daughter commented at one point. “This was not a bad way to go.”

“Human exit.” “Way to go.” This is the language of intentionality, and intentionality is precisely the problem with suicide. Certainly dying is inevitable, but it’s still a curse. To choose it – embrace it even, orchestrate and choreograph it – is not a victory, but rather a surrender. Opting for intentional death may relieve ones suffering in the moment, but it is always a permanent defeat, never a triumph.

Emily Esfahani Smith makes this case in “The Catastrophe of Suicide,” where she points to G.K. Chesterton as being an especially important opponent of the practice:

Chesterton was one of our last full-throated critics of suicide. His insistence that suicide is immoral sounds strange to our individualistic ears: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” Chesterton wrote: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.”

ChestertonPortraitDetailSuicide is truly horrible – so horrible, in fact, that some kind of madness invariably accompanies it. No truly sane person will end his own life, and mental health professionals are on high alert when their clients even bring up the idea.

That’s part of the reason why there’s no room for personal condemnation: Those who kill themselves are rarely in their right minds when they actually do the deed. They often have untreated depression or mental illness of some kind, or uncontrolled, unbearable pain, and what they really need is aggressive treatment for relief, not “assistance” (physician or otherwise) in accomplishing their own demise.

In fact, when it comes to suicide, what really deserves censure is our society’s widespread moral amnesia that increasingly makes room for sanctioned self-destruction. Physician assisted suicide, now legal in five states, sounds both clinically tidy and profoundly merciful, but, let’s face it: It’s just really another way dispensing with suffering by dispensing with the one who suffers.

3. There is a lighter side to suicide. Believe it or not. You can treat it as an existential companion and gadfly instead of a dire threat, and, oddly enough, we can turn here again to Chesterton for guidance and insight.

One of G.K.’s lesser known poems is “A Ballade of Suicide.” Despite its title, it’s a bouncy, optimistic meditation that reveals both a profound sympathy with those driven to desperate acts and a resilient hope that such desperation can indeed be surmounted.

The “Ballade” starts off disarmingly with the narrator’s glib description of his morbid plan. “I tie the noose on in a knowing way,” he remarks nonchalantly. “As one that knots his necktie for a ball.” Chesterton even includes a chorus of onlookers who cheer him on in his goal, but then he holds back at the last minute:

The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Chesterton then proceeds to tick off an evocative list of activities and attitudes that have contributed to his change of heart – the prospect of payday, for example, and a novel approach to cooking mushrooms. Also, he sees “a little cloud all pink and grey,” and he remembers that he has never read “the works of Juvenal” – who has? These and other considerations have the cumulative effect of prompting the would-be suicide to change course, at least for that day.

And the “to-day” dimension of Chesterton’s poem is key. Like Alcoholics Anonymous’ well-known prescription of “one day at a time,” G.K.’s vision of suicide avoidance and prevention entails a valiant daily struggle against the temptation to give in to oblivion – something that Robin Williams also affirmed in that book foreword I mentioned earlier: “For those who refuse to let an incurable illness keep them from doing their duty, for those who keep fighting, for those who live life vigorously and joyfully to the very ePercy-2nd, we have names for those people. We call them heroes.”

Heroes, yes, and “ex-suicides” – a term coined by Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos. Ex-suicides are those of us, like Chesterton apparently, who have had reason to contemplate suicide, but have turned it down:

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.

Percy and Chesterton aren’t talking about once-in-a-lifetime, Damascus Road mental health conversions. Instead, the habit of rejecting suicide – that is, the project of remaining an ex-suicide instead of an actual one – is a daily slog, and there’s no letting up. Ever. Heroism doesn’t come cheap.

It’s the kind of heroism on display in the “The Fisher King,” my favorite Robin Williams movie which features him along with Jeff Bridges as especially memorable ex-suicides. Even better, however, is the cult classic “Harold and Maude.” For most of the film, the two titular characters are exuberant ex-suicides who seem to be well on harold-and-maudetheir way to inner healing and emotional stability. At the very end of the movie, however, after Maude regrettably ends her life, Harold’s intense grief seems likely to overwhelm his tenuous hold on living. He could follow Maude’s lead, but he doesn’t – an ex-suicide if there ever was one.

No, we don’t judge those who choose suicide, but we surely ought to judge the act and strongly urge the vulnerable to spurn it. The world needs more self-conscious ex-suicides, and Robin Williams was an especially heroic one for years, decades even. Sure, we’ll miss his knack for eliciting smiles, but I for one will especially miss his example of persevering ex-suicide heroism.

To honor him, I think I’ll locate a copy of “The Fisher King” and watch it with my teens. And, following G.K.’s lead, maybe I’ll track down a copy of Juvenal to keep by my bedside. You know, just in case.


A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Of Head Nods, Hat Tips, and Empty Crosses

10 Aug

Indeed he is not far from any one of us.
~ St. Paul

As a neophyte in Chicago, I was blessed with an abundance of Catholic culture. The Windy City is an immersion experience for converts – the ideal mystagogy – and I relished all the new language, rituals, traditions, and Catholic quirks, absorbing it all like a sponge.

For example: Nodding my head any time the name of Jesus is uttered, a habit I picked up from my godfather. In previous generations, this was a normal part of Catholic etiquette, as routine as genuflecting before entering a pew. You can see it in action in this scene from the 1940s film The Bells of St. Mary, where the schoolchildren sing a Christmas “Happy Birthday” at the end of their Nativity play.

Catch that? All their heads made a determined bob at the mention of the Holy Name, as if it would be unthinkable to do anything otherwise.

“But that’s a movie,” you’re thinking. “Those kids were acting; they were coached and directed.” Yes! That’s the point! Leo McCarey, the director, surely coached all the child actors, regardless of their actual church affiliation, to make the nod because he knew the Catholics watching the film would expect to see it. Actually, it’s not that the nod would’ve been expected, but rather its absence would have been unsettling and weird – because it was so normal at that time.

And you can still see vestiges of this once universal practice at Mass to this day – watch the priest, depending on the formation he received, and older parishioners as well – but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. That’s too bad, because it’s an important reminder of a vital truth. In the Biblical tradition, names were wholly representative of the persons named. By bowing the head when Jesus’ name is mentioned, we acknowledge His divine majesty and dignity, as well as our relative status as utterly dependent. Thus, even a quick bow when His name is uttered (particularly when it is uttered as an oath) fleshes out in miniature St. Paul’s universal imperative:

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Another time-honored Catholic quirk I picked up in Chicago is making the sign of the cross and tipping my cap every time I go by a parish church. My mentor in this regard was Mark Miller, a longtime Catholic Worker in Uptown who had a deep-seated devotion to the Eucharist. I would occasionally accompany him in his truck A045_YouthTipsHatto pick up donated food for the soup kitchen, and whenever we drove by a church, Mark would lift his cap and cross himself. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask him about it. “Jesus is in there,” he responded flatly. “I’m just paying my respects.”

Of course, there are Catholic churches and chapels all over Chicago, which meant that we never went far in any direction without doffing hats and invoking the cross again and again. I didn’t mind, because it was an incredibly comforting gesture, especially to a convert. What a relief to be regularly acknowledging that Jesus was always close at hand, Really Present all over the place. Moreover, He wasn’t just present, but also waiting for me to come visit and offload all my burdens and worries and crud.

I starting performing the ritual right alongside Mark, and it quickly became a habit – eventually I ceased thinking about it much. And now, I do it automatically as I pass by the churches scattered here and there around South Bend. It has become routine, even perfunctory, like the head nod at the mention of Jesus’ name. Perfunctory, yes, and routine, but still a valuable sign – like a goodnight kiss between exhausted spouses. Not always heartfelt at the moment, but nonetheless an important sign of underlying commitment and relationship, not to be missed.

It’s the same way I’ve long felt about crucifixes in our home. I’ve ensured that one is prominently displayed in every room of our home, even though I know they eventually become part of the woodwork, so to speak, and hardly noticed in the bustle of life. But they’d surely be missed if they weren’t there – that is, I know I’d miss them.

I grew up with wall crosses as a Protestant, but they were always empty. Like many converts to Catholicism, I was drawn to the novelty of the crucifix with its visible corpus as a focal point of devotion. The crucifix’s three-dimensional Christ is a stark and startling visual reminder that our God does indeed understand his creatures’ plight firsthand; that He is not a detached deity, but an incarnate Lord, who has mucked around right alongside us in our little corners of this fallen world, and has known human pain and suffering and death.

St. John puts it a little more eloquently when he wrote that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – that He “pitched His tent” among us as the Bible scholars tell us. I like that image. I’m guessing that tent-pitching in a foreign territory can be frustrating, messy, and even dangerous – just like our lives. The result of that tent-pitching for Jesus, of course, was deadly indeed, but it led to new life. Consequently, for us to see Him on our crosses at home can give us courage and confidence to keep trudging ahead in our own struggles because we already know the end of th4_fpc_bouldere story. The empty cross points ahead to Easter triumph, to be sure, but the crucifix is an image of God’s consummate empathy in the here and now along with an underlying message of hope for the future tied in.

That idea was brought home to me a couple years after I’d become a Catholic and I attended a funeral at the Presbyterian church of my youth. It was a funeral for a young person who’d died under tragic circumstances, and the anguish of the family and others gathered there was almost unbearable. Everyone was reduced to sobs and tears, me included, and for consolation, I instinctively looked up to the front of the church, hoping to gaze on the Crucified One.

But He wasn’t there. It was a beautiful cross, framed by stained glass, and comforting in its own way, but He wasn’t on it. The empty cross offered hope of Resurrection and life and eternal peace, yet that’s not what I was looking for at that moment. What I wanted, what I needed to see at that moment of intense grief was God suffering alongside all of us, and I didn’t.

This is what Nancy Murray was getting at in a recent issue of American Life League’s Celebrate Life magazine where she wrote movingly about her mother’s courageous battle with mental illness. “My mother once told me that she kept a crucifix in every room,” noted Murray, “so she could see Christ on the cross at all times.”

However, I’ve had a change of heart about empty crosses. Not too long ago, Fr. Martelli mentioned in a weekday sermon, almost as an afterthought, that he appreciates empty crosses – maybe even preferring them, if you can believe that  – because they invite the faithful to picture themselves hanging there.

That caught me off guard. “Wait,” I thought. “What? Picture myself hanging there? Why?” I had to think about that one.

When I’m suffering through something, I already know it. In such moments, I’m looking for solace and comfort and understanding, not a mirror. Why would I want to picture myself on an empty cross when I can see God Himself up there as a sign of divine sympathetic rapport?Travel_1holy_name-255x255

St. Matthew records the answer. Jesus tells his disciples (and us by extension):

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the revolutionary notion animating Chaim Potok‘s Asher Lev, an Orthodox Jewish painter, when he explains why he chose to depict his mother hanging on a domesticated cross:

For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama…. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death…for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.

Fr. Martelli and Potok were getting at the same point: The Cross, as a symbol of suffering, is profoundly universal. Yes, we Christians find relief in our present sufferings by seeing God Himself hanging on the crucifix, but the empty cross has value as well for all people. It is a powerful, truly catholic sign of hope amidst hardship, particularly when it is embraced in earnest.

And if we can see ourselves up there? Why not others – as Asher Lev envisioned with reference to his own mother. Seeing ourselves on the cross increases our empathy for our neighbors as they grapple with their own adversity and misfortune. Sure, I’ve got my problems, my crosses, but so does the cranky cashier at the grocery store, the guy who cut me off on the bypass, my dentist, my coworker, my son. They’re all crucified, they’re all Christ in a way, especially if we take to heart the idea that they’re all carrying a divine imprint, regardless of their faith tradition. As a rabbinical saying puts it, “A procession of angels pass before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, ‘Make way for the image of God!'”

Maybe I should be tipping my hat and crossing myself more often.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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.


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