Hallowed Ground: A Wintry Visit to a Fresh Grave

17 Feb

“For those who have surrendered themselves completely to God, all they are and do has power. Their lives are sermons.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

“It’s right here, along the fence,” Fred told me as he drew on a napkin. “The road comes around in front, but back near the fence there’s a gate that’s right by the spot.”

We were having lunch a couple weeks after Fred had said his final goodbyes to Debbie, his beloved wife, a stalwart mother and grandmother, and a true pillar of our local Catholic community. That sounds trite, but it’s absolutely true in this case. As Fred testified, so many people had been sharing with him anecdotes and testimonies about how Debbie had served them, quietly, humbly, almost invisibly, but substantially and always on the mark. I added my own testimony at lunch, telling Fred how important Debbie’s ministrations were to my young family way back when. At the time, we were new parents and had just moved to the area, and, frankly, we didn’t know how to cope. Debbie showed up to help us over the hump, and she did it with so much grace and good cheer. What’s more, she lent us a heaping portion of her confidence – “You can do this,” she silently communicated.

And we believed her. It was easy to believe Debbie.

Although I attended the funeral, I had to miss going to the graveside due to teaching duties, so I was glad Fred brought it up. As he drew his napkin map, it dawned on me that Debbie’s final resting place was in a large cemetery near my workplace. Until that moment, I’d no idea there was hallowed ground there, and I’d been driving past it for some 20 years. “I found out by accident myself,” Fred told me. “Before Debbie got sick, I was talking with Fr. Chris about his new parish assignment, and he mentioned that it came with a graveyard – and the expenses associated with its upkeep.” To help him out a bit, Fred purchased two plots side by side in anticipation of the inevitable, but the inevitable came too soon for Debbie.

Fred also mentioned that her grave marker was still being prepared, but that in time I’d be able to drop by to pay my respects since I was so close by. “Where’s the spot exactly?” I asked him – I didn’t want to wait for the marker. That’s when he started drawing on the napkin.

A couple days later, on my way home from work, I followed Fred’s napkin coordinates and located the drive that would take me into the Catholic part of that little cemetery. Sure enough, a small sign indicated that I was entering a consecrated area associated with Fr. Chris’s parish.

I guesstimated where to stop and, since there were no other visitors, I left my vehicle in the middle of the drive. It was cold, and there were deposits of snow along the tombstones and memorial markers. Piles of leaves from last fall peeked out from corners here and there; old, dried flowers randomly adorned the frozen grounds. I saw the gate along the fence, near an outbuilding that no doubt sheltered a backhoe and mowers. I tromped past areas encompassing several generations of Catholic families – weathered stones from the 1800s with flattened inscriptions side by side with crisply engraved markers of more recent vintage.

And there, just in front of the gate, was a slight depression in the ground covered by a collapsed display of shriveled flowers. Next to it was an undisturbed plot of the same size, and I deduced I was in the right place. “Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,” I prayed, “and let perpetual light shine upon her.” Birds were landing to peck at the grass clumps exposed by the melting snow, and there was a muffled din of nearby traffic. Otherwise it was silent and still and peaceful. I asked Debbie for her prayers.

As I returned to my car, I made a mental note to return soon. By then, the marker will be in place, but I’m glad that it wasn’t there for my first visit. Its absence, for me, corresponded with Debbie’s extraordinary vocation of selfless hiddenness. I trust that her new hiding place in Him will serve to expand her reach.
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Keeping the Showman Great: Of P.T. Barnum, Vows, and Fatherhood

9 Feb

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“The father-son paradigm is ageless….
This is truly the key for interpreting reality.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Read more…

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Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Physic of Tears

3 Feb

“Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.”
~ Judith Orloff, M.D.

“Jesus wept” (Jn 11.35). It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, as every junior high kid who’s ever been near a Sunday school or youth group can tell you.

Of course, it’s only the “shortest verse” in English translation, but let us not dither about such piddling details. The point is its brevity and reputation make it the Mother of All Memory Verses, and that has implications. As Christians, we’re literally “little Christs,” right? We’re obliged to imitate him as much as possible – to even become him in the Body of Christ, in carrying our crosses and serving others, and especially in receiving the Eucharist. So, if Jesus wept (as everyone knows), so we ought to weep. He even hammers this idea home in the Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are you that weep now,” he tells the crowd, “for you shall laugh” (Lk 6.21).

Note the cause and effect here. It would’ve been especially important to the original audience. As Luke reports, that crowd on the plain included many who’d come “to be healed of their diseases” and unclean spirits. They had plenty to cry about, and Jesus not only gave them leave to do so, but also indicated that the tears themselves were part of the healing process.

And to the surprise of no one who’s ever enjoyed a good cry, science bears out Jesus’ prescription. “Emotional tears have special health benefits,” writes Judith Orloff in Psychology Today, because they “contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.” Orloff further notes that crying also seems to stimulate “the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones.” Recall that the famous “Jesus wept” verse occurs in the context of Jesus finding out about the death of Lazarus, his good friend. It was stressful; it was painful; it was just the kind of situation that calls for a shot of endorphins. Our incarnate savior benefited from his tears just like we do.

Yet we tend to get fidgety in the presence of weeping – both others’ and our own. My kids and my students make fun of me because I’m so easily moved to tears. If I read a stirring Gospel passage before class? Snuffles. Recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V for my son on his namesake’s feast day? Sobs. Heck, I even cried during Ice Age IV, if you can believe that Ice Age IV! If you’ve seen it, you probably know the dad-daughter scene that got me going. My kids certainly picked up on it in the theater when we went to see it together. They all looked away from the screen and stared at me in anticipation of the flood.

They weren’t disappointed.

Let ‘em stare, I say. We should all cry more, not less. There’s lots to cry about in the world these days, not to mention all the terrible and terrifying challenges we might personally face. But only trained thespians can conjure up tears on cue, and Ice Age IV will only do the trick for softies like me.

So here’s a surefire lacrimal remedy for you: Nine-year old Amira Willighagen’s performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” on Holland’s Got Talent. Not long ago I was sitting at our home computer with 11-year-old Katharine by my side. We were searching for a particular musical video she wanted to show me, and Willighagen’s showed up in the sidebar – 34 million views! I shrugged, clicked on it, and said, “Let’s check this out.”

The set-up draws you in immediately. Young Amira walks confidently to the center of the stage and takes questions from the three judges. They’re impressed by her youthful fearlessness, which is only confirmed when she tells them that she’s there to sing an operatic number.

“O Mio Babbino Caro” is an aria from an opera by Puccini, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time – and it didn’t matter at all. Nor did it matter that the sub-titles, which had been providing English translations of the Dutch preliminaries, disappeared when Amira started singing in Italian. In fact, I think that my ignorance of what the girl was singing about only added to my emotional response.

And that response was a strong one. Almost from the very first note, my eyes welled up. The absolute purity of her voice and her gentle gesticulations in accord with the flow of Italian lyrics were mesmerizing. Astounding. It’s disarming to witness such a coupling of sheer innocence and profound artistic depth. “You can’t believe this,” one of the judges comments. “It’s not normal.” Look at his colleagues and the audience behind him, mouths agape, eyes wide.

Within seconds, I was a mess of heaving tears. Just like at Ice Age IV, my daughter leaned in and looked at my face. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

I couldn’t explain. I still can’t. Maybe it has something to do with the thought that this young girl is already feeling something that most of don’t feel until much later into our rattling lives. “An old soul,” that same judge remarks of Amira’s amazing performance. I prefer the language of grace – like, “She’s touched by grace.” And grace means suffering; grace means the cross. Why should this 9-year-old be so primed to endure so much?

But maybe it’s just my own pain. Whatever it is, I have the same reaction every time I watch Amira surrender herself to that aria. It’s a gift. It’s a balm. Try it. You just might find the release you’re seeking.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Luminous Mysteries: The Pope’s Ecumenical Tutorial

28 Jan

“If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid
and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism!”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

22 Jan

“He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.”
~ Dr. Theophilus Grantly

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Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

14 Jan

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.”
~ Walker Percy

I’m what you’d call a “fair-weather runner” – which means I’m not running these days. Come spring, however, and the thaw (God willing), you’ll find me out there on the street almost daily: Putting in my miles, getting ready for my 5Ks, running my 5Ks, chasing my younger kids on their bikes when they let me. It’s my annual endorphin spree, and just enough aerobic workout (averaging out the year) to stay in decent shape (again, God willing).

Otherwise, my athleticism is entirely derivative and vicarious.

And since we live in South Bend, that means football – Notre Dame football to be precise. Rooting for the Irish has always been an integral part of our family culture every fall, and that only intensified when my two oldest kids matriculated there. We watch the games on TV, we faithfully read the South Bend Tribune’s game day pull-out in anticipation, and we listen to post-game analysis on the radio. Frankly, that’s my favorite part. In fact, I generally skip watching altogether and rely instead on the radio broadcast. It allows me to work on other things (like dishes or the garage), and it reduces my stress when it’s a close game. Plus, the television broadcast is about 15 seconds behind the radio, so I get to hear the touchdowns and interceptions before everybody planted in front of the screen – much to their dismay. “Dad,” I’m regularly reminded, “don’t shout out when you see stuff! It ruins it!” (Sorry, guys.)

Anyway, the other part I like about the radio broadcast is that there’s nothing to distract me from the commentators and their analysis. Beforehand they’ll give me their Keys to the Game – stuff like “establish the running game, protect the football, and watch for the big play on special teams” – and I’ll nod my head vigorously in agreement. Following kickoff, I happily depend on the voices of IMG’s Don Criqui and Allen Pinkett to verbally sketch out the action for me. They’re my Notre Dame football gurus, and I accept their every aside and throwaway without question. “If you turn it over three times, you oughta’ lose,” Pinkett has repeatedly emphasized over the years. “If you turn it over four times, you gonna’ lose.” As a dedicated Pinkett disciple, I’ve come to consider that maxim a self-evident dogma.

Once football season is over, my radio listening habits largely revert to the dulcet tranquility of NPR, but I’ll still fire up CBS sports from time to time just to hear them rant and rave.

And, boy, do they ever rant and rave. Baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey – even tennis. Even golf, believe me! Most of the time, I have no absolutely no idea what they’re talking about – minutiae related to coaching techniques or on the field strategies or contract negotiations, whatever – but that’s part of the fun. As a near-total outsider, I can enjoy listening to the hosts, guests, and callers exchange shots regarding issues of great import to them, secure in the knowledge that it has no bearing on my life whatsoever. They’re strident; they’re uncompromising; they’re combative. “There’s no way this team is coming out on top” followed by “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!” I love it.

Why? I tell you, it’s the vehemence that’s so appealing. It’s the fight; it’s the undeniable evidence that these people are passionate about something and willing to make a stand. My family and I watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre last night, and there’s that scene near the beginning when Humphrey Bogart and his partner are brawling with the crooked boss who bilked them. As the fight ensues, you see other denizens of the bar casually nursing their drinks while observing the fracas. That’s me when I listen to sports radio. I listen to the sports guys duke it out and revel in their passions. Something has them riled up, and it’s good to see folks riled up – riled up enough to go at it with their opponents.

In other words, the fight itself is what I find satisfying, the disagreement and its manifestation in the form of conflict. Since it’s just radio talk, there’s no physical violence, praise God, but the verbal assaults can be vociferous and brutal. All the better.

There’s evidence that fighting about stuff is not only entertaining to others (me, at least), but healthy in itself. I heard mathematician Hannah Fry’s TED talk on NPR recently about the application of statistical analysis to the vitality of love relationships and marriage. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that the most successful marriages – the ones least likely to end in divorce, in other words – were those that include more conflict and confrontation rather than less. Here’s Fry from her talk:

I would’ve thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones…where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones…that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain.

It seems that bringing hurts and perceived slights, no matter how insignificant, to the fore is much healthier than simply overlooking them to keep the peace. Better to get the tensions and differences out in the open, that is, hash them out, bicker and fret, than to “go placidly” – Desiderata notwithstanding.

I think that’s the reason I found Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday so appealing when I first read it as a young Catholic-wannabe. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it (and I urge you to do so if you haven’t), there’s a delicious disorientation at the novel’s core that involves would-be Victorian bomb-throwers who are surprisingly sympathetic figures. Aside from their enchanting personalities as individuals, their very radicalism appeals, and by the end of the novel you’re rooting for them and derivatively swept away by the allure of Sunday, their ostensible, yet elusive, anarchist leader.

It’s clear that Chesterton, in Thursday, isn’t advocating actual physical violence as a remedy to society’s ills, but he is making a compelling case for violence nonetheless – a violence of conversion, that is, a no-holds-barred upheaval – in persons, in societies – that can lead to redemption and sanctity. “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.” As in marriage, goodness and holiness cannot be approached by merely being amiable. Indeed, amiability that glosses over conflict serves only to obstruct the very revolutions that usher in true change of heart.

“Would that you were cold or hot!” St. John records the Lord telling the Laodiceans. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Nothing doing. I’ll take my cue from the heat of sports radio and stay clear of lukewarm. So please forgive me if I’m cranky. I’m just working out my salvation.
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Of Time Travel, Christmas, and Liturgical Displacement

6 Jan

“Being obedient, she became the cause of salvation
for herself and the whole human race.”
~ St. Irenaeus

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