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Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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3 Fairy Tales with Not So Tidy Endings

4 Nov

“For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike,
whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
~ George Macdonald

“And they all lived happily ever after.” It’s the fairy tale equivalent of “riding off into the sunset,” and it bespeaks a neat wrapping up of loose ends at the end of a harrowing yarn. The bad guys, vanquished; the good guys, triumphant. The village is spared, and the populace rejoices in the good fortunes of the hero and heroine who risked all to come to the rescue.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from fairy tales – or, perhaps, it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect from decades of exposure to Disney-fied versions of fairy tales. Keep in mind that Disney is a business, and businesses seek to sell us stuff. Ambiguity, agony, and angst don’t sell as well as happy endings. From detergent and diapers to fairy tales and family films, it’s much easier to hawk what people are already clamoring for, and it seems that we prefer tidy narratives for our kids.

So much for the modern, free-market approach to fairy tales. In previous ages, it was not so. Here’s a few examples from Victorian times:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

George MacDonald wrote lots of books, but he’s especially remembered for his fairy tales. They unfold somewhat haphazardly and erratically – as if they’re printed versions of bedtime stories Macdonald made up on the spot for his children. (If you’re a dad and have attempted to do the same with your own little ones, you know what I mean.)

This particular MacDonald classic is noteworthy because of its influence on one J.R.R. Tolkien, who populated his own fantasy fiction with MacDonald-esque goblins: malevolent and seemingly irredeemable creatures who reside in the underworld of caves and mines. In MacDonald’s story, the goblins are so base that they can’t even “bear singing” because they “can’t sing themselves…and they don’t like other people to sing.” Nonetheless, they set their sights on securing a foothold in the overland world of men so they kidnap the Princess Irene as a bride for Harelip, their goblin prince.

Yet their schemes are thwarted by a young miner named Curdie who is humble and heroic and heedless of danger. Armed with song and his trusty mattock, and assisted by Irene’s magical great-great-grandmother, Curdie frees the Princess, who in turn comes to Curdie’s rescue after he’s captured, and the goblins are thoroughly routed in the end. When the king, Irene’s father, is apprised of all these events, he offers Curdie a royal appointment in his retinue, and the stage seems set for Curdie and Irene to grow closer as they grow older, with nuptial bliss on the horizon in due course.

What happens instead is that Curdie, an only child, opts to stay behind with his parents in their mountaintop home. “But Curdie,” his mother tells him, “why shouldn’t you go with the king? We can get on very well without you.”

“But I can’t get on very well without you,” the boy replies. “The king is very kind, but I could not be half the use to him that I am to you.”

More surprising is the fact that the evil goblins turn out to be redeemable after all. “Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts,” MacDonald narrates at the end, “and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners.” Perhaps they even learned to enjoy singing in time.

The Princess and Curdie (1883)

This is MacDonald’s sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, and it picks up the story with Curdie on the mountain at home with his folks. Now that his adventures with the goblins have receded, Curdie seems to sink into a moral indolence. Finally, he has a crisis of conscience when he shoots an arrow at a pigeon for no good reason. “He had done the thing that was contrary to gladness; he was a destroyer!” MacDonald writes. “He was not the Curdie he had been meant to be!”

Almost as an atonement for his transgression, he goes on a quest to locate Princess Irene and save her father, the king, from a slow death by poison at the hands of his corrupt court. Irene’s great-great-grandmother provides Curdie with special powers of discernment as well as a mutant minder, Lina, who serves as companion and protector on the road.

As they travel, Curdie and Lina are joined by numerous other mutant creatures, and by the time they reach the king’s city, Gwyntystorm, they are an intimidating band. Through artifice and force, Curdie and Lina gain entrance to the castle, come to the aid of Irene and her father, and oust the traitorous courtiers and servants. The king’s enemies enlist the support of a rival nation to do battle against their own homeland, but with the aid of Curdie’s monstrous crew, the king is victorious and re-establishes his authority over Gwyntystorm and his realm.

At this point, the promise of the previous Princess tale is realized, and the now mature Irene is wed to the valiant Curdie. After the king dies, the young royal couple assumes rule over the kingdom, and a season of peace and prosperity ensues. Yet, Curdie and Irene, it turns out, never have children of their own, and when they themselves die, the kingdom falls into ruin. The king appointed by the people becomes consumed by greed, the people themselves revert to their wicked ways, and the royal city itself eventually collapses into obscurity. “All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer,” reads the book’s last lines, “and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.”

Not exactly the “happily ever after” ending you’d have expected following the successful reign of King Curdie and Queen Irene. Still, MacDonald’s ending projects backward a poignancy and realism over the entire two-volume work that gives the reader pause. Were Curdie’s and Irene’s efforts for naught if their kingdom disappeared? Does the value of our present actions depend on their long-term impact and how they build our legacies?

The Little Lame Prince (1875)

I’ve been reading MacDonald’s stories for decades, but I’d never heard of this fable by MacDonald’s contemporary, Dinah Maria Craik, until I came across it recently at home. It was a night of insomnia, and I went hunting among our stacks for something to lull my overactive brain into slumber – something light, something diverting. Maybe something new.

I saw the discordant title on the white Watermill Classic spine, and I paused. “Lame? Prince?” I thought. “Now there’s a kid’s story I don’t know.” I grabbed it, headed back upstairs, and settled in for what I thought would be a chapter or two before I nodded off.

Craik’s tale kept me up for a while, and then again the next couple nights. It’s a wonderful story, and most certainly in the vein of MacDonald’s works, with odd twists and turns that keep you locked in until the very end. It’s the story of poor little Prince Dolor whose mother died shortly after his birth, and who himself suffered a crippling injury on the day of his baptism. After the king dies as well, an unscrupulous and scheming uncle arranges for the disabled young prince to be shipped off to exile in an isolated tower, and it seems unlikely that Dolor will ever come into his royal inheritance.

The prince’s godmother, however, has fairylike powers, and she delivers an enchanted cloak to Dolor that enables him to escape his exile and travel about the countryside. Eventually, after his uncle dies, Dolor is restored to his birthright and assumes the throne, and his kingdom is restored to its former glory.

But what of his lameness? Doesn’t the godmother heal Dolor’s infirmity? It’s not even suggested as a possibility. Instead, throughout the story, the prince’s lameness is a given, and it’s part of his nobility that he’s able to rise above it and rule with equanimity.

First, because, accepting his affliction as inevitable, he took it patiently; second, because, being a brave man, he bore it bravely, trying to forget himself, and live out of himself, and in and for other people. Therefore other people grew to love him so well that I think hundreds of his subjects might have been found who were almost ready to die for their poor lame king.

Dolor never marries in Craik’s story, and so, like Curdie and Irene, the royal blood line is interrupted. However, Dolor takes on a distant cousin. a descendant of his treacherous uncle, as a protégé, and by the end of the tale Dolor peacefully turns over the reins of power to him. The retiring, crippled king then exhorts his people to follow their new leader, produces his enchanted cloak, and slips away.

It’s not exactly riding off into the sunset, but it’s satisfying all the same. And it’s a narrative template of perseverance, virtue, and selflessness that not only enthralls but edifies.

Who wouldn’t want their kids to have that?
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Of Courage, Humanae Vitae, and the Martyrdom of Speaking Up

28 Oct

“Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.”
~ Pope St. Paul VI

Read more…

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A Radical Preference for Heavenly Treasure

14 Oct

Today’s Gospel sounds extreme. That’s because it is extreme. It’s a gut punch to our modern, more moderate sensibilities – which is why we should pay special attention.

A man kneels before Jesus and asks (with apparent sincerity) what he has to do to be saved. “You are lacking in one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10.21). It’s a classic application of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” In this case, the man got the one answer – perhaps the only answer – that he couldn’t accept. “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Then Jesus turns to his disciples with a zinger: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” – impossible if we take seriously the Lord’s camel/needle’s eye imagery. It’s a pastoral body slam! “Then who can be saved?” the disciples object, for they know that everybody tends to jealously guard his hard-won worldly fief. Peter even blurts out in self defense, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and we can picture the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement.

Yet total divestment of that which keeps us from Jesus can take many forms. You’ll recall that a few Sundays back, Jesus had to rebuke these same disciples for “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9.34). Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head; can’t you hear him sigh? “If anyone wishes to be first,” he patiently told them, “he shall be the last of all.”

Again, total divestment is the point – of money, of power, of prestige, of all the world holds dear. Jesus makes discipleship sound extreme. It is extreme.

Just how extreme can be glimpsed in the life of St. Dominic Loricatus, OSB Cam., whose feast is normally observed today (Oct. 14). Born in 995, he received holy orders as a child after his family bribed a bishop – the sin of simony. Later, as a young man, Dominic repented of this sin, refused to exercise his priestly office, and fled to the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana in central Italy to do lifelong penance.

Ironically, Dominic’s repentant retreat to obscurity led to his fame. At the time, Fonte Avellana was home to St. Peter Damian, who advocated self-mortification as a spiritual discipline. Dominic followed this counsel and embraced the practice. For example, he took up a chain-mail vest, or lorica – the source of his nickname – and wore it next to his skin until his death in 1060.

Dominic also engaged in self-flagellation, which is how he merited a mention in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

So…extreme? Perhaps – especially since Dominic couldn’t have been held responsible for his illicit youthful ordination. But this pious monk, with his sights firmly fixed on heaven, resolved to keep his distance from serious sin, despite his remote culpability – and who can argue with his choice? He might’ve foregone the inestimable gift of his priesthood and employed the harshest methods, but he won a crown in heaven.

How about us? Can we go to extremes for sanctity? “All things are possible for God,” Jesus tells us today. Let’s take him at his word.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. A shorter version originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Holy Hubbub: Lessons from Squabbling Saints

6 Oct

To live above with the Saints we love,
Ah, that is the purest glory.
To live below with the Saints we know,
Ah, that is another story!
~ Irish toast

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Our Local Pro-Life Guardian Angel

22 Sep

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Mt. 18.10).

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Fathers Stay Put: Of Paternity, Stability, and Canon 522

22 Sep

“Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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