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The End is in Sight: The Four Last Things

20 Mar

“Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will, for the second death shall do them no ill.”
~ St. Francis of Assisi

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A Pivotal 4×4: Of the Marks of the Church

20 Feb

“The inner reality abides changeless; Christ made his Church thus; it can never be otherwise.”
~ Frank Sheed

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All Hands on Deck: Of Kids, Confirmation, and Calamity

14 Feb

Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

15 Jul

The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.
~ G.K. Chesterton

“Just what kind of movies do you like?”

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing cinematic tastes. Katharine, my youngest, was being a bit evasive; Benedict, my oldest, was drawing her out.

Kath paused, looked straight at Ben, and then blurted, “I like murders.”

Maybe not the answer you’d expect from a 12-year-old, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been treating my kids to a steady summer diet of sleuthing and homicide. First it was a DVD season of “Murder She Wrote” from the library, and then on to Agatha Christie – Miss Marple, yes, but especially the ITV version of her Belgian eccentric, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). His accent and fastidiousness have grown on us, along with the wide-eyed, perpetual bewilderment of his sidekick, Captain Hastings.

Our routine involves popping in the disc, getting settled with our snacks, and then launching into speculation as soon as the principals start showing up on the screen. Often, I’m trying to finish up the dinner dishes as the proceedings commence. “Is there a corpse yet?” I’ll call out from the kitchen.

“Nope, not yet,” Kath or somebody calls back. “But hurry – there’ll be one soon!”

By definition, murder mysteries will have a victim – at least one, sometimes more. The murder method also varies: a stabbing here, an electrocution there, gunshots, poisons, blunt trauma – who knows? Regardless of how or how many, death sets the stage – it’s the unquestioned given, the backdrop before which the narrative unfolds.

Yet, the TV murder mysteries we enjoy don’t involve anything grisly or shocking. These aren’t slasher flicks, so the deed itself is a muted part of the drama. When it’s over and done with, we get to the real fun: joining up with the sleuths to solve the crime. We gasp and laugh, talk to the screen and each other, and amend our conjectures along the way – sometimes twice, sometimes more. By tale’s end, the family score is tallied – who was right, who was wrong – and we head off to bed.

Sweet dreams!

That might sound a bit weird, but my follow-up with Kath after dinner confirmed my intuition that our familial enjoyment of the genre was pretty healthy. “Why do you like murder?” I asked.

“I like guessing who’s going to be killed – and who’s the killer,” Kath explained. “I don’t like killing, but I like figuring it out – it’s a puzzle, and the obvious ones are never right.”

In this, Kath instinctively paid tribute to Chesterton’s observation that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes,” and kids love jokes. A good joke, like a good mystery, fools us. We fall for an unseen juxtaposition or association that both surprises and satisfies.

Chesterton further argues that a mystery is like

a toy, a thing that children ‘pretend’ with…. From this it follows that the reader, who is a simple child and therefore very wide awake, is conscious not only of the toy but of the invisible playmate who is the maker of the toy, and the author of the trick.

And since the “innocent child is very sharp and not a little suspicious,” a good mystery creator will gift his audience an experience that simultaneously confounds and confirms. It’ll make sense in the end, no matter how bewildering the preceding series of events. “The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble,” Chesterton insists, “but rather the breaking of a dawn.”

This enlightenment was referenced by Katharine in a further reflection on her murder mystery enthusiasm. “And I like seeing the bad guy get caught,” she said, adding this astute assessment: “It’s always money – always greed. I want money, too, but I’m not going to kill for it.” Although her nuanced insight regarding mammon and avarice made me beam with paternal pride, I was especially alert to her appreciation of justice served. Unlike some modern thrillers and horror films, we expect – no, we demand – that traditional murder mysteries have a happy ending: the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys are held accountable.

Here, too, Kath’s comments made me think of Chesterton, but this time it was his splendid defense of fairy tales. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” he writes. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There’s a big difference between fairy tales and mysteries, I know, but I think there’s an edifying overlap between St. George and Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s a monster or a murderer, the graphic depiction of its sure defeat reinforces the idea, in Chesterton’s words, “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

By accompanying our teens and pre-teens into the moral universe of murder mysteries, whether on the screen or on the page, we foster their grasp of important catechetical truths: that God brings order out of chaos, that good triumphs over evil, and that death is never, ever the end of the story.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Mr. Milewski, Pizza, and a Laden Cross

30 Mar

There are two memories I associate with Steven Milewski, my childhood chum. One is his dad, a taciturn man who worked the night shift and was rarely around when I was over at Steven’s house. Sometimes on the weekend, I’d be present when the man arrived home midmorning, bedraggled, weary, downcast. There’d be brief nods and greetings, and then a barely discernible shift in household atmosphere as the blue-collar warrior trudged upstairs for his daytime repose. Steven and I would keep playing army men or whatever, but we’d do it quieter, much quieter. No more grenades and explosions. No more total war on the hardwood floor.

Then, one night, and I’m not sure the occasion, Mr. Milewski took me and Steven out for pizza. It was the first time I remember indulging in that glorious riot of cheese and grease and meat – an epicurean epiphany. The setting was ideal: A local Jersey joint down by the Raritan, complete with red-checkered tablecloths, poor lighting, and boppy music on the jukebox. We ordered root beer – a treat! – but I had to be instructed in how to pick up the slices with my hands.

That first bite, that first bite! It burned the roof of my mouth, but the mingling of flavors and the Zenlike texture of yielding toppings on crunchy crust were well worth it. Maybe Mr. Milewski smiled when he saw my reaction, but probably not. Regardless, I now think back with great appreciation that this hardworking family man gave up a precious night off to treat his son, and I’m so grateful that I got to tag along. Offering hospitality as a shift worker is always challenging; receiving such is always an honor.

My second Milewski memory is the big wooden crucifix that hung in the main entry way of Steven’s house. Although I usually came in through the rear door since our backyards abutted, I’d still pass by the crucifix as I followed Steven up to his room. It was scary, to tell the truth, something utterly foreign in my staid, unadorned Presbyterian experience – much more foreign than pizza. At some point, I got up the courage to look at it more closely: The wooden Jesus, I could see, was actually nailed to the wooden cross. It wasn’t a one-piece molded affair – like the crucifixes on our plastic rosaries. No, this was an actual man affixed to an actual gibbet. I could see the three little tacks. “Why do you have Jesus on your cross?” I remember asking Steven later in his room. He shrugged – he didn’t know. He was Polish and Catholic and that’s just what they did.

Steven might not have been equipped to properly catechize his Protestant neighbor, but the image and implications of his family’s entry-way crucifix have stayed with me ever since. Now that I’m a Catholic myself, I’m particularly cognizant of those nails – the fact that the suffering Savior could’ve been pried free of his torture; that the corpus could’ve been removed to reveal a less disturbing empty cross. But empty crosses are not enough for us. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It’s a baseline that all Christians must embrace, as Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon insisted: “So Paul…put his foot down, and said, in effect, ‘Whatever others may do, we preach Christ crucified; we dare not, we cannot, and we will not alter the great subject matter of our preaching, Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’”

It’s what the Milewskis silently preached with their family crucifix. It’s what my family now preaches with ours. It’s what you preach with yours. And we pray for the grace to practice what we preach.
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St. Crispin’s Day for Catechists

26 Oct

One Thousand Words a Week

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Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst?
~ Pope Paul VI

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