Detachment from riches is obligatory
for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven (CCC).
“But you’re the nicest person I know,” I told her.
“Don’t mean I haven’t done bad things,” she said.
Try this experiment: Approach any random group of grade-schoolers, and ask them who their favorite character is in Kate DiCamillo’s story, Because of Winn-Dixie. Odds are pretty good that most of them – possibly even all of them – will say “Gloria Dump.” At least I know that’s the case among my own kids, and the same holds true for me, my wife, and most adults – why is that?
I remember reading the book to our kids and loving it. And last night we watched the movie again at Nicky’s request, and it, too, was well worth it. The mood set by both is a gentle one, and, despite real problems – alcoholism, desertion, jail time, and accidental death – there’s a sense that everything is going to be alright.
All the characters are memorable, flawed, and appealing – Otis at the pet shop, Miss Block at the library, Opal’s dad (a.k.a. “The Preacher”) – but none more so than Gloria Dump. “Ain’t that a terrible last name?” she asks Opal when they meet. “Dump?”
The name, though, is in stark contrast to the beautiful complexity and equanimity of the character. She’s blind, yet she sees deeply; she’s a dry drunk, yet her outlook is sober; she’s solitary, and yet her gift of hospitality seems to have no limits. Most of all she’s a peacemaker and a bridge-builder and a sponge for others’ suffering – truly a “wounded healer” if there ever was one.
Of course Gloria is everybody’s favorite!
As we watched the the movie version of Gloria in action last evening, I kept hearkening back to yesterday’s Gospel, and it struck me as serendipitous that I’d encountered them both on the same day.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
Here’s Gloria’s take: “You can’t always judge people by the things they done. You got to judge them by what they are doing now.”
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers and sisters only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
“Do you think everybody misses somebody? Like I miss my mama?” “Mmmm-hmmm,” said Gloria. She closed her eyes. “I believe, sometimes, that the whole world has an aching heart.”
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Gloria Dump looked over at the preacher.
He nodded his head at Gloria and cleared his throat and said, “Dear God, thank you for warm summer nights and candlelight and good food. But thank you most of all for friends. We appreciate the complicated and wonderful gifts you give us in each other. And we appreciate the task you put down before us, of loving each other the best we can, even as you love us. We pray in Christ’s name, Amen.”
“Amen,” said Gloria Dump.
Gloria Dump, I came to recognize, is who I aspire to be: A human being conscious of ones colossal failings who is nonetheless resolved to make amends by, among other things, making room for the failings of others – by learning to love our enemies, in other words, really love them.
As Pope Francis said, “This is the Christian life,” and “being Christian isn’t easy.” The Holy Father continued:
‘But Father, to be Christian is to become some sort of fool?’ Yes, in a certain sense, yes. It means renouncing the cunning of the world in order to do everything that Jesus tells us to do.
Yes, renouncing the cunning of the world. That’s where Gloria Dump is especially inspiring because she spurns pretension and artifice, and is truly intent on being present to all those who cross her path, whether friend or foe.
Can I do that, too? “Let us ask the Lord for the grace to understand what it is to be a Christian,” Pope Francis recommends, “to understand the grace He gives to us Christians because we cannot do it on our own.”
As Gloria Dump put it, “Amen.”
“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos
Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.
My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.
Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.
On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”
Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populated exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”
I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.
Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.
Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.
It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.
And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.
As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.
Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, and it was banned by the military censors.
Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.
That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”
And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a thinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)
As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.
And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:
Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.
Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!
Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!
It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.
Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life
and imitate their faith (Heb. 13.7).
There’s a scene in Robert Duvall’s film The Apostle where the renegade evangelist, Sonny Dewey, comes upon a boat blessing ceremony on the river. “You do it your way, I’ll do it mine,” Sonny allows, acknowledging the efforts of the presiding priest, “but we get it done, don’t we?”
It’s a fairly sophisticated ecumenical observation, and it came to mind when an oversized ad in the Family Christian Bookstore window caught my eye last year. It was Billy Graham, the king of the altar call, all silver-haired and looking distinguished as ever. And he had a new book!
At least, there was a new book with his name on it, and it had in fact already come to my attention because of a story by Kenneth Woodward in the WSJ. Woodward argued that Graham himself had little to do with the book, and that the Billy Graham machine was largely responsible for cranking it out. Woodward went on to suggest that the machine ought to consider giving the nonagenarian and his legacy a break.
I grew up on Billy Graham’s preaching and Christian vision, and he was my childhood hero. I never made it to one of his famous crusades, but I remember watching them on TV with my family – even running to my room during an on-the-air altar call to re-dedicate my life to Christ on at least one occasion.
That was back when I was memorizing Bible verses with the Navigators and gobbling up books from InterVarsity Press about apologetics and evangelization. There were youth groups and Sunday school, summer camps and work trips, quiet times and discipleship meetings. And Billy Graham? He was the Evangelical standard-bearer, a key role model for carrying out the Great Commission and spreading the Good News.
Graham was knowledgeable and learned, but he never came across as arrogant or pretentious. His preaching was passionate and persuasive, yet devoid of the scaremongering hellfire that characterized other popular evangelists of his time. Although Graham routinely counseled U.S. Presidents and his televised crusades made him a media superstar, Graham nonetheless gave you the impression that he was a regular Joe – that he was approachable and normal and downright human.
So, I wanted to be like Billy Graham – what young Evangelical wouldn’t? How to accomplish that was the question.
Rather, the real question was: Are you kidding me? Graham appeared to be a normal human being, but there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he was still somehow different and, thus, in an altogether foreign realm as far as life trajectories went. Consequently, the famous evangelist represented a goal that was both admirable and yet unattainable – and therefore quite safe.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and you’ll find me as a freshman at Wheaton College in Illinois – Graham’s alma mater. I didn’t go there just because of the Graham connection, but it was certainly a factor, and when I heard that Graham would be coming to visit Wheaton that semester, I was thrilled.
He was coming to dedicate Wheaton’s spanking new graduate school and center for evangelization that was to be named in his honor: The Billy Graham Center. I marked the date on my calendar, and I eagerly anticipated the day I’d get to see this larger than life paragon of the Faith up close for the first time.
The day arrived – it was cold and windy. I bundled up and headed down to the Center for the dedication ceremony. There was a crowd already gathered before the dais, and I wormed my way to the front, rationalizing that my past history of Graham enthusiasm justified a bit of jostling and rude behavior.
No matter – I was there! Maybe 20 feet from the great man – him, sitting up on the platform with the other honored guests; me, down below at the edge of the horde and gazing up at the podium. Impatiently, I waited out the string of introductions and mini-speeches, and then the moment I’d been waiting for: Billy Graham stepped up to the mike to speak – right there, just above me! I could’ve reached out and touched his shoe!
Then, I noticed something: Billy Graham had a runny nose.
“Billy Graham – a runny nose?” (Pause.) “Heck, even I get a runny nose from time to time.” I watched with curiosity as Graham reach for his handkerchief. “Why,” (wait for it) “that means,” (wait…) “that means that…Billy Graham isn’t all that different from me!”
Simple, I know – painfully obvious even. But recall that I was just a young undergraduate at the time, and up to that point (believe it or not), it had just never occurred to me that superstars and larger than life heroes – even the Evangelical Christian ones – were, well, human. Mortal. Ordinary folks that catch cold like everyone else.
It was a revelation, yes, and a challenge: If God could accomplish so much through an ordinary, cold-catching mortal like Billy Graham, what might He accomplish through me? And, more to the point, what’s holding Him up?
Fast-forward once again to the present day. Billy Graham is back in the news because of Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s Oscar nominated film that tells the story of Louis Zamperini – the Olympic runner, World War II hero, and internment camp survivor. Sadly, the movie downplays Zamperini’s faith, and, as Grant Wacker pointed out, it totally bypasses his watershed conversion at a post-war Graham revival in Los Angeles.
In the movie “Unbroken,” Billy Graham goes unmentioned, and Zamperini’s redemption narrative is largely reduced to a few title cards flashed before the closing credits. Yet Zamperini himself believed that the religious event was the pivotal moment of his long journey.
Zamperini was raised a Catholic, and it would’ve been all the more glorious if his adult conversion had brought him back to the Sacraments. Even so, it’s clear that Zamperini totally surrendered himself to God’s grace, and that grace had a field day in and through his life. He gave up his heavy drinking, sought to forgive his Japanese captors, and, most significantly, ended up devoting his life to telling others about the Lord – the most sure sign of an authentic interior about-face.
“The Church wants to preach the Gospel together with all who believe in Christ,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “It wants to point out to all the path to eternal salvation.” Note the Holy Father’s double emphasis on the word “all” there: All need to hear about the Gospel, and, consequently, all need to preach it – it’s a team effort! That means clergy and religious doing the preaching, as well as businessmen, homemakers, and students. Both young and old are called, as are both the educated and the illiterate. What’s more, the mission includes every kind of Christian, Catholic and otherwise, and even those who might be struggling in their faith or moral life. “All who believe in Christ,” St. John Paul wrote, not “all who believe in Christ and meet a certain minimal standard of virtue and piety.”
That brings me back to The Apostle. The central character, Sonny, is an imperfect ambassador of Jesus if there ever was one. Among other things, he has a drinking problem and anger issues, and he ends up beating a man into a coma. Instead of turning himself in, he goes on the lam and creates a new life for himself in another state under a pseudonym – not exactly a poster child for Gospel living by any stretch.
As depicted in the movie, however, the flawed Sonny somehow still draws others to Jesus – even as the ending credits roll and we see Sonny the convict leading his fellow prisoners in a spiritual chant as they clear the highway of brush. In this, is he so different from St. Paul, himself a murderer and a leading persecutor of the first followers of The Way? There wasn’t a whole lot of distance between Paul’s acquiescence at the stoning of St. Stephen and his first attempts at testifying to Jesus, and he went on to become the greatest evangelist ever. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (cf. I Cor 9:16) was his motto, in season and out of season. It ought to be ours.
Don’t worry that you don’t know enough or that you think you’re not holy enough or that you might get something wrong. Preach the Gospel with your words as best you can, and strive to bring your life into line with those words. Tell others about Jesus with your voice, and at the same time coax your actions and choices along to follow suit. Do it even if you’re a rotten sinner. Do it even if you’ve got a runny nose or you’re ninety-some-odd years old.
Do it anyway – don’t wait. “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth,” St. Paul wrote the Philippians, “Christ is proclaimed.” And when Christ is proclaimed, regardless of how, good things happen.
A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.
It is the essence of the Church to have a lot of low masses
and no sermons (Hilaire Belloc).
When my non-Catholic friends express curiosity about Catholic worship, I struggle to help them understand that Mass is first and foremost about fulfilling an obligation, and what we might get out of it is of secondary consideration. I’ll explain that liturgy is, quite literally, the “work of the people,” and it’s no secret that human work can be kind of routine and even boring sometimes. Yes, we always receive Jesus in spades at every Mass, wonder of wonders!, but our first purpose is to go and bend the knee – it’s a Commandment after all.
My Evangelical friends just don’t get this, and so I’m always happy when they join me at Mass to experience it for themselves – although I know what the fallout will often be: Scrunched up faces and raised eyebrows as they suffer through seemingly mindless ritual, rote prayers, and the occasional lousy sermon.
“Sometimes worse,” I’ll offer gleefully. “Or, on weekdays, sometimes we luck out and get no sermon at all!”
“Then,” they’ll wonder aloud, “why go at all?”
Ah, there’s the nub, and it’s why bad homilies played a role in my conversion. As an Evangelical inquirer, I recognized very early on that the Mass was the heart of Catholic faith and practice, so I went as often as I could – daily even after a while. I endured many a bad sermon in those days, especially at the weekday liturgies, but they helped to cement the idea in me that the Mass is a numinous encounter that does not depend on clever preaching whatsoever.
Instead, it’s an encounter that is much more rich and profound and (most importantly) dependable than mere sermonizing. It’s an encounter borne of proclamation of a written Word and, more particularly, celebration of a Sacramental drama, the Eucharist. The setting might be a gorgeous cathedral with beautiful music accompanied by a well crafted and scintillating sermon, or it might be a drab suburban chapel with an off-the-cuff homily from a harried priest who spent the night at the bedside of a dying parishioner. No matter: Jesus will show up at both. Sure, we’d prefer inspirational and energetic preaching, but it’s not at all necessary.
Indeed, there’s a benefit to mediocre preaching once in a while, and it’s this: The faithful will be all the more likely to focus on what’s most important in the Mass if they aren’t distracted by the brilliant homily. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”
The Holy Father went on to stress that the “homily cannot be a form of entertainment,” distracting us from Jesus as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, “yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” It’s a tricky balance, no doubt, so be on your guard if you’ve developed a taste for great preaching. A diet of superb, memorable homilies might tempt those in the pews to grow attached to the homilist, and the last thing the Church needs are personality cults, sermon groupies, and church-hopping in search of jazzy hermeneutics and/or rhetorical pyrotechnics.
How do I know that? Easy. Those are precisely the things we converts left behind when we joined the Church – and we don’t miss them at all.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.