Two Thoughts About Mary (since it’s October)

4 Oct

With Elizabeth we marvel, “And why is this granted me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (
CCC 2677).

She Who Must Be Obeyed

When I can’t sleep, my go-to is P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve read and re-read the dozen or so Jeeves and Wooster novels scattered around our house countless times, not to mention the ones I’ve checked out from the public library. They’re literary comfort food, and intrinsically peaceful. Nobody gets killed; happy endings are inevitable; and Bertie’s quirks mirror my own quirks – like therapy and sleep aid rolled into one!

rumpoleHence, the other night, probably around 2 a.m. or so, I ambled downstairs to the living room to track one down. In the dim light, I grabbed a volume with that familiar orange spine and Penguin trademark, but – alas! – it wasn’t Wodehouse. Instead, it was Rumpole of the Bailey, a book adaptation of John Mortimer’s British TV series that I must’ve snagged from my brother some years ago.

I gave it a glance: “Rumpole is worthy to join the great gallery of English oddballs,” reads the blurb from the Sunday Times, “ranging from Pickwick to Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.”

“Hmmph,” I grunted to myself sleepily, “we’ll see about that.” I headed back upstairs to bed.

Horace Rumpole is a criminal defense attorney – a “barrister at law” in British parlance – and an irascible character who quotes poetry, enjoys his tobacco and red wine, and never surrenders in the courtroom. Also, he’s the father of one son, Nicholas, and the husband of one wife, Hilda – whom he refers to as “She who must be obeyed.”

Apparently, that’s a title that Rumpole borrows from a popular Victorian novel entitled She, by H. Rider Haggard. In that case, the epithet applied to the novel’s eponymous “she,” a tyrannical African queen – which gives you some idea as to why Rumpole applies it to his spouse. Hilda Rumpole is, shall we say, a formidable woman who generally gets her way, and the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Rumpole provides for some genial moments in the novel.

As I read and nodded, and the words “she who must be obeyed” danced in my drowsy consciousness, a thought jostled me awake: That title meant pejoratively in Hilda’s case could easily be applied in a more positive sense to our Blessed Lady.marriage-feast-at-cana

For isn’t it practically a direct import of John’s commentary on the wedding at Cana? We see Mary implicitly telling Jesus what to do (“They have no wine”), and Jesus, after objecting to the mandate (“O woman, what have you to do with me?”), extravagantly carrying it out. It’s a picture of Jesus deferring to Mary as “she who must be obeyed” – we should do likewise.

“A-ha!” my Protestant friends will object. “It’s just as we thought: You Catholics treat Mary as if she were a goddess!”

Not at all, I’d argue, and a further look at John’s depiction of the Cana story provides the necessary clarification.

Once Jesus acquiesces to Mary’s request, she then immediately turns to the household servants and gives them a very direct order: “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s the same order that Mary has been giving her spiritual sons and daughters ever since, for two thousand years. Unlike the servants at Cana, who snapped to it and obtained the jugs required for the Lord’s water-to-wine miracle, we drag our feet and falter and forget…and Mary has to remind us again and again: “Do whatever he tells you!”

Oremus, Orans, and Acolytes

This is the season at our parish when the sixth-graders are training to serve at altar. They’re generally short of stature, and I have to admit it’s fun to see them swimming in their albs as they meander about the sanctuary, trying to remember where to go, what to do. (Believe me, I’m sympathetic!)

Seeing them recently, it reminded me of when a friend pointed out that my diminutive daughter could hardly hold up the censer (or ‘thurible‘) – that mini metal stove used for burning incense during the liturgy. It hangs from a chain, and one of the duties of RE-Roman-Missal-Changes-001_t598the designated acolyte (or, “thurifer” as she’d be called) is to suspend it in front of the priest so that he can spoon in an adequate amount of fuel.

The thurible can be weighty, sure – but not that weighty, as I assured my friend. Besides, the altar servers only have to hold it up to the priest briefly – along with the short ritual when they’re sent forward with the smoky bowl to incense the congregation: a few short swings to and fro, back and forth – a cinch!

But what about holding up the sacramentary during the collect? That’s got to be another matter altogether, because, unlike the incense gadget, the sacramentary is an uncommonly big book – dense, oversized, and heavy!

It’s because of the liturgical “orans” (or orantes) posture that the altar servers have to heft this weighty book during the Mass. Just before the opening prayer of each Mass (the “collect”), the priest intones the oremus – the formula “let us pray” with his hands folded. Then, as he recites the collect, he spreads his hands apart with palms upraised – the orans stance of pleading that figures prominently in Catacomb illustrations and other ancient Christian drawings.

The orans tradition can tolerate a number of legitimate interpretations, but the way it’s used today is pretty clear. “The liturgical use of this position by the priest is spelled out in the rubrics (the laws governing how the Mass is said),” writes Colin Donovan. “It indicates his poransraying on behalf of us, acting as alter Christus, as pastor of the flock, head of the body.”

Thus, we can see how vital the acolyte’s humble duty becomes at this point. By holding aloft the sacramentary, the server frees up the priest’s hands to intercede for the congregation. This is in keeping with the instructions we find in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal:

189. Through the entire celebration, the acolyte is to approach the priest or the deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate, insofar as possible, that the acolyte occupy a place from which he can conveniently carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar.

It strikes me that this is also an apt description of Mary’s subservient, yet essential, role in God’s plan: to assist her divine son in any way required, and to stay close to him so as to always be available. Mary herself spelled these ideas out in her Fiat (“Let it be to me according to your word”) and Magnificat (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”).


  1. Mary is “she who must be obeyed,” and she commands us to “do whatever he tells you.”
  2. Mary, the first altar server, models for us that “whatever” in staying close by the High Priest and facilitating his salvific actions in any way she can.

Shouldn’t we do likewise?

October is dedicated to Mary and the Rosary. Let’s see…where are my beads…. It’s the least I could do.

The Marital Indispensable Minimum

23 Sep


“But if the case is as you say,” it may, with the disciple in the Gospel, be objected, “then it were better not to marry at all.”

To which I answer: Yes, if you can’t face those terms, much better.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller

Read more…


Fountain of Grace

20 Sep


SMITH: I stick up for the thing every man has a right to. Perhaps the only thing that every man has a right to.

MORRIS: And what is that?

SMITH: The benefit of the doubt.

(G.K. Chesterton)

I have a short list of songs I’d love to play on the drums. There’s “Good Times Roll” by the Cars, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band makes the cut as well, but I don’t think I could ever duplicate drummer Gary Mallaber’s syncopated hi-hat magic, even back in my high school heyday.

Joe-Walsh-Rocky-Mtn-feat-imageThen there’s Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” his slow-churning paean to life in Colorado. For one thing, it’s straight-on rock, but with a bluesy tinge, giving it a measured pace – more my speed in other words. Plus, it came out when I was a young transplant to Boulder from New Jersey, so I readily identified with Walsh’s love of the mile-high state. “Couldn’t get much higher,” he sings. “The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.” No offense to Jersey, but it’s hard to beat living at the foot of snowcapped peaks.

The song appears on Walsh’s 1973 album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” and I wore it out on my stereo – even playing along on my Ludwig drum kit, much to my family’s dismay. It’s a happy, exuberant tune, and still fun to sing along with when it comes up on the classic rock station. But Walsh himself? Obviously he was a fine musician and songwriter – something that even a middle-class pop star wannabe like me could recognize, especially once Walsh joined forces with the Eagles during their “Hotel California” days. Otherwise, I never gave him much thought, I suppose, and if anything I probably assumed he was just another rowdy rock star – and, keeping with stereotype, a druggie to boot.

That changed this week.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an older news item in the Boulder Daily Camera. “Did you ever know about this sad and interesting connection between Boulder and Joe Walsh?” he asked. I read through the feature, and suddenly Joe Walsh went from generic rock star to real human being – an individual, with a story and a history, complete with the same emotional wrenchings up and down that life throws at all of us.

It turns out that about the time I was bingeing on his music in Boulder, Walsh was living there himself, recording at the Caribou Ranch up in Nederland, and enjoying a rich family life with his wife, Stefany Rhodes, and their young daughter, Emma. While Walsh toured, Rhodes would stay in Boulder, taking Emma to a park near their north side home, or bringing her to other homes for playgroups.

125134599_1392404907In 1974, just weeks shy of Emma’s third birthday, Rhodes was driving Emma to one of those playgroups when another driver ran a stop sign and crashed into them. Emma’s injuries were massive and she never recovered. Both Rhodes and Walsh, who was on his way home from a concert tour when the accident happened, were understandably devastated.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In addition to writing and recording a song in honor of his beloved daughter, Walsh went about establishing a physical monument to her as well – a water fountain in the park she played at so often, along with a memorial plaque:

This fountain is given in loving memory of 
Emma Walsh 
April 29, 1971-April 1, 1974

“The fountain was all Joe’s doing, really,” said Emma’s mom, Stefany Rhodes. “Joe was a very romantic person.” The whole story moved me to tears, and I was frankly embarrassed by my surprise that a hard rocking mega-star could be so tender and vulnerable.

And Walsh’s depth of feeling after Emma’s death wasn’t a fluke borne of fleeting intense grief either. Like so many pop stars, he did have his struggles with substance abuse and serial marriage, but it’s evident that through it all, he still managed a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness. “One thing I found in the music business is if you pretend like you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing,” Walsh admitted to 60 Minutes, “and I just never wanted anybody to find out that I didn’t have a clue.”

Clearly I was the one who didn’t have a clue. My surprise at Joe Walsh’s ordinary human frailty and profound grief belied assumptions and prejudices that made me ashamed. It brought to mind the famous “Who am I to judge?” rhetorical question posed by Pope Francis – especially since it had just come up in an NPR story last week. Journalist Paul Vallely revealed a detail about that controversial papal soundbite that I’d never heard before: That the Pope had been responding to questions about his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and his selection of Monsignor Battista Ricca as his point man. “He was asked about Ricca [and] the man’s gay past – if he seeks the Lord and repents, who am I to judge – that was the context,” Vallely said. “It was interesting that he was not going to be steered away from his intent to radically reform the bank by people leaking things like this.”6c8437783-130729-pope-plane-8a.nbcnews-fp-360-360

When the Pope’s comment hit the headlines in 2013, I, like many others, had a knee-jerk moment: What does he mean? How am I going to explain this to my kids and non-Catholic friends? Is Church teaching going to change?!

Nothing of the sort. It was just Pope Francis being Pope Francis: pastoral, merciful, and unpredictable. Now I come to find out that it was also Pope Francis showing his managerial backbone by refusing to allow vicious rumormongers from derailing his radical reforms.

In other words, “Who am I to judge?” applies to my assumptions about the Pope as much as anything – or anyone – else.

Back to Joe Walsh. The more I read, the more I discovered that there was way more to the notorious partyer and rowdy rocker than I could’ve ever ever imagined. He’s sober now, and more settled, which allows him to channel his tremendous talents and sensitivity in a myriad flourishing directions. “I look around and the people are very happy,” he said of his latest concerts. “We can elevate everybody’s overall feeling of good will and everybody has a great time — including me.”

Sounds like grace to me — and who am I to judge?

For the Lamb…will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rv 7.17).


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

An Architect, a Displaced Bishop, and the Humility of Hiddenness

31 Aug

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No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.
It should be of the hill.
~ Frank Lloyd Wright

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Of Sunday Obligation, Harry Stovall, and Catholic Spleen

20 Aug

Walker Percy, Bechac's lunch Nov., 1980

God, religion, was the farthest thing from our minds and talk – from mine at least. Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to Mass. He said nothing about it and seemed otherwise normal.
~ Walker Percy

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A Garage-Sale VCR: Three Picks from the Video Archives

16 Aug

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, Geraldine Page, 1985. (C) Island Pictures

The most beautiful journeys are taken through the window.
~ Last line in King of Hearts

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Of Rip Currents, Our Lady, and a Crippled Troubadour

9 Aug


Some try to run away from all temptations, and still they go on falling into sin. Flight alone will not conquer all temptations.
~ Fr. Anthony Paone, S.J.

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