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St. Symeon of Syracuse: A Saint for Pirate-y Things

3 Jun

“Aargh, me hearties!”

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Shopping for a Protestant Bible

9 May

“The idea of the unity of God’s people…is profoundly based in Scripture.”
~ Pontifical Biblical Commission

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Why I’m Catholic: It’s Home

3 May

The whole flailing, disastrous mess — all true, all somehow in accord with what is, and, despite itself, ably engaged in bringing our distorted grasp of things in line with that reality.

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Why Confession is Always Worth It

20 Apr

“The medicine cannot heal what it does not know.”
~ St. Jerome

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36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago

7 Jan

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Shopping for a Terminal Address

29 Apr

“For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we will find one another again
in the same place.”
~ St. Simeon of Thessalonica
(CCC 1690)

My students thought it was sketchy. Several of them had seen me standing on a curb near the campus service entrance earlier in the day – just standing there. “What’s up, Mr. Becker?” one of them called out as she drove past. “I’m waiting for my wife to pick me up,” I called back. “I’m taking her someplace to show her something.”

Someplace. Something. So mysterious. “What was all that about?” my students ventured later that afternoon before our evening hospital clinical. I was happy to explain. “We went to the cemetery so I could show her our grave plots.”

What?

Not the most romantic of dates, I suppose, but you have to admit that it’s a solid confirmation (in real estate) of our ultimate shared abode. And it was joyful, for I’d purposely picked out spots close to dear friends who’d also reserved plots. We laughed as we wound our way between the tombstones and graves to find our designated places along the fence – “here’s where we’ll be; here’s where they’ll be.” Permanent neighbors – what fun! There was a cemetery worker nearby setting up for an imminent burial, and he seemed perplexed by our joviality – probably even a bit offended. “Don’t these people know where they are?” his scowl implied.

Let him scowl!

Look, why kid ourselves? Short of the Parousia, we’re all going to die – something my nursing students know well. And while it can happen to us any day, at any moment, it’s a reality that comes into sharper focus as we get older…er, rather, to be honest here, it’s a reality that’s coming into sharper focus for me as I’m getting older. Muscles I didn’t even know I had are starting to ache, obscure joints regularly alert me to their presence, and my chronic illnesses get all the more chronic-er.

You too?

But these are all good things, I think. Despite the hassles, getting old is a gift – truly! We have regular physical reminders that there’s an endpoint on the horizon along with daily opportunities to avail ourselves of divine aid and maybe get things right, maybe set things in order once and for all. “Death puts an end to human life,” the Catechism makes plain, “as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). Increasingly these days, when the morning alarm goes off, my prayer takes the form of, “Excellent – another shot at inching toward heaven. Thanks, God! Help me not screw it up today.”

What’s more, there’s also the fact that the older we get, the more funerals we end up attending – family, friends, co-workers. We grieve their departure, we comfort their surviving loved ones, and, unlike in our youth, we can’t help thinking to ourselves, “That’ll be me sooner rather than later.”

Is that morbid? Naah – I’m a Christian! Death is the point, after all – death to sin, death to self, dying that leads to rising and new life. It’s built right into our baptismal dignity – something we might forget when we’re watching cute babies get doused and sprinkled. It’s not simply a washing away of original sin, but also a sacramental entombment followed by a resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St. Paul wrote the Romans, who were familiar with the stark symbolism of full immersion, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life begins immediately upon receipt of baptism, of course, but it won’t see its full flourishing until our earthly walking days are over. At that moment, God willing, the moment of our deaths, we’ll hear the welcome of the Good Shepherd and we’ll know, either immediately or in time, the blessed relief of joining the company of heaven.

Yet there’s still more to come, for we believe in the final resurrection of the dead, “when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life…” (Jn 5.28-29). Redeemed souls will be reunited with their bodies, and they’ll have arrived at what Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue (drawing on Chesterton) described as the “Tavern at the End of the World,” full of feasting and cheer and riotous mirth. They’ll gather round with the saints of their holy cards and devotions, but also all the hidden saints whose paths might’ve only glanced theirs in this life. Imagine the craic and camaraderie! “Of course, you’re here!” they’ll cry to each other. “And I? I’m here, too? Thank God! Praise God! Another round!”

That’s the part that has me so jazzed about our grave plots and their juxtaposition to our holy friends. I envision my wife and I greeting them as the general resurrection commences – a back slap, perhaps, a hand shake and a hug – and then rising with them to the Pearly Gates. And if St. Peter should glance at his book and raise an eyebrow at me in hesitation, I’ll pipe up: “But, listen, I’m with her” (pointing to my wife), “and we’re with them” (indicating our friends).

I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can’t help smiling when I think about it. In truth, as Mr. Blue puts it, “It is only Catholicism that would ever allow the like of me to hope some day to be there,” but if I do make it, I’d love to have some pals along – especially during orientation and those awkward ice-breakers. Wouldn’t you?

All kidding aside, by setting down our markers in that cemetery, we’re concretely acknowledging our mortality – to ourselves, to our kids, to the world. Like a religious habit or a large family, making such grave reservations well before they’re needed is an implicit declaration of faith and abandonment. Plus, for my part at least, just knowing it’s there waiting for me just might spur me on to “work out my own salvation” with increased diligence and fervor (Phil 2.12).

I tried to relate all this to my students, but they just shook their heads. It was all too weird for them…so I went for broke. “Now that we have our grave plots,” I casually related, “I’m going to try talking my wife into purchasing Trappist caskets – maybe set them up at home as bookcases or end tables.”

OK, maybe that was taking things a bit too far…perhaps.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Hour of Our Death.

Latin: A Convert’s Romance in Three Movements

22 Apr

“This ‘one language’…was an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Allegro

The waitress dropped off our check, and the busboy was starting to clear away our syrupy dishes. “Do you have any other questions?” the priest asked.

Like the waitress, Fr. Tom was itching to get on with his day. He’d already given up a good chunk of his morning over breakfast with me, but he was being trying to be understanding and polite. I was an utterly naïve Catholic wannabe who had parachuted intellectually into the melee of early-1980s catechetical confusion, and I was desperate for straight answers and guidance. As pastor of my Uptown parish, Fr. Tom was generously taking the brunt, and he did his best to field my many questions about Mary, the papacy, confession, and the like.

“Well, yes, I do have one more,” I replied. Fr. Tom waited – I hesitated. It was an embarrassing question that I knew would expose my flights of anachronistic Catholic fancy. “I bought this Rosary the other day” – my first one; I still have it! – “and there’s some Latin on the crucifix. Can you translate it for me?”

I figured (correctly) that Fr. Tom had gone to seminary when Latin was still required, and he nodded as I handed my beads to him. “Let’s see…Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi. Basically it means ‘Behold the wood of the cross which holds the savior of the world.’” It was a condensed line from the Good Friday liturgy, with which I’m well familiar now, but Fr. Tom didn’t mention it at the time. I thanked him and accepted back the Rosary without further comment.

Inside, however, I was thrilled. It seemed so mysterious, so obscure, and yet so solid, so reassuring. Somehow, it meant more to me that the words were in Latin than if they’d been in straight English – or Italian, or even Biblical Greek for that matter. The Roman part of Roman Catholic seemed inexorably bound up with the Latin language, and now I not only had my own little token of it, but I even understood what it meant! It was like I’d been granted an insider’s glimpse of something essential about the Faith – it’s character, it’s personality. It was a small emblem of entrée into a world utterly foreign to me, but it was significant. The Church, to me, was like a family, a big, messy family, with its own bewildering constellation of traditions and quirks and esoteric language, yet it was to be my own.

I clutched my Latin-laced token as if it was a ticket for an ocean crossing.

Andante

“But why is the word for ‘ship’ feminine when the word for ‘sailor’ is masculine?” I asked my longsuffering Latin instructor. “And a farmer is masculine, but farming itself is feminine?”

He sighed, and I suspect the others sitting around the long table did so inwardly. It was supposed to be an accelerated Latin course for graduate students, not a seminar in philology. “There is no reason,” he calmly explained for the umpteenth time. “It’s just how it is. It’s just how the language developed.”

I didn’t buy it, but I let it go…again. We resumed our plodding through Allen and Greenough, and I shelved my curiosity. I was working on a master’s in medieval history at the University of Colorado, and my goal was supposed to be acquiring a reading knowledge of Latin, not unpacking its subtle linguistic lineage. Yet, as I struggled with vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions, I kept coming back to Latin’s alluring temperament. I should’ve been anxious to get on with utilizing the language to tackle minims, miniscule, and manuscripts, but I was getting bogged down in the language itself.

Then the moment came when it became clear that medieval studies were not to be my life’s work. A different instructor took over the second half of the accelerated Latin course, and, on a lark, he decided that we’d spend the final weeks of the semester translating the Vulgate’s version of John’s Gospel instead of Cicero. Who knows why he chose this – at a state university of all places. Regardless, we all dove in – and I was transfixed by the text. The debates about translation naturally revolved around meaning, and I swiftly drifted away from caring much about paleography and medieval charters. What mattered was John’s theologizing about the God-man’s invasion of our world.

As you’d expect in such a class, the goings were slow, but we managed to arrive at John 6 before the term concluded. “The text is pretty straightforward,” the instructor indicated. “Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem habet vitam aeternam – ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ And it aligns well with the Greek. Thoughts?”

It was an open invitation and I jumped at it. I gave a rudimentary overview to my classmates of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but with a revealing enthusiasm that marked me for a divergent future. Clearly my career trajectory wasn’t going to involve staid academic impartiality. I was a sectarian partisan, and it wasn’t long after that day that I dropped out of the medieval studies program and headed off to Steubenville to study theology. Once again, a singular encounter with the Church’s dead language had resulted in a lifegiving epiphany.

Presto

Mrs. Dance had Ben’s folder open and it was time to choose his freshman language requirement. “I don’t care what else you take in high school,” I told my teenage son. “But you have to take Latin.”

Why not Spanish? Why not something useful? Why not, why not, why not…? I wouldn’t budge, and I haven’t budged since. Ben and two of his siblings have since graduated high school having enjoyed (or endured) at least three years of Latin each; Crispin will graduate this spring after a full four years. Cecilia is in her second year, and her two younger siblings will follow in her footsteps once they get there. Honors courses, dual-credit college courses, calculus and trig (or drawing and digital photography) – whatever they’d like. But Latin? It’s a must.

For one thing, I’m still persuaded by the argument that there’s no better way to buttress vocabulary, writing skills, and critical thinking than a hefty dose of Europe’s original lingua franca. My collegiate children back me up on this to a certain extent – although there’s a considerable lobby there to allow their younger siblings to acquire a modern, “practical” language.

Overruled.

Besides, in addition to Latin’s value as a prep for the S.A.T. and college-level composition, there’s also the fact that it has always been everybody’s high school home base – an oasis in their daily grind, a safe space, both intellectually and socially, even emotionally. This stands to reason if you consider the camaraderie that would naturally emerge when kids of varying classes and backgrounds are compelled by their backward parents to study an ancient tongue. “It was great,” Crispin told me. “There were people I’ve been close to in Latin that I’d never run into outside of class.” And whenever our teens over the years have laughingly shared school-day anecdotes, they’ve more often than not emanated from Latin class.

But this is all smokescreen. The real reason – the ulterior motive, as it were – for my insistence on Latin for my kids has always been because it’s the language of the Church – the syntax and structure of how the Church thinks, the way our Faith family communicates at her very core. I want that drummed into their heads, along with sound catechesis and regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church, so that, if they’re ever to stray, they’ll be plagued by Latinate cadences. They’ll be haunted by the drumbeat of ecclesial sentence structure, and their very imaginations will be penetrated by Romish categories of reason.

That’s not to say that I don’t want them to think for themselves, to think broadly and openly – far from it. “Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples,” Pope St. John XXIII declared. “It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.” Its static character is its very advantage, for it fosters organized thought while allowing for wide-ranging entertainment of other and opposing views. And can there be a better foundation for achieving fluency in other languages – Romantic and otherwise – which, in turn, will lead to intellectual meanderings and couplings well beyond the Catholic fold?

Yet, no matter how far they wander, their years of Latin study will ensure an ingrained mental link to the liturgical language of their ecclesial homeland. Even if they come to reject and despise their baptismal heritage, they’ll carry with them that heritage’s mode of expression. That’s critical, because they are coming of age in a culture “often characterized by concern with appearance, superficiality,” as Pope Francis put it recently, “the division between heart and mind, interiority and exteriority, consciousness and behavior.” Study of Latin and Latin literature, the Holy Father said, can be part of the antidote to such postmodern existential caprice, for it can help young people find “the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence,” to connect them to “the inner and intimate essence of the human being.”

Certainly, in a much more limited and haphazard way, that’s what Latin did for me – at least insofar as it contributed to my grounding in the life of the Church. And there’s nothing more important to me than fostering a similar grounding for my children. It’s the best I can offer them, and they shall have it, despite their objections. Felix culpa – amen.
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