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When You Have Less Than a Day at an Abbey

27 Jun

“And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.”
~ Van Morrison

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Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

9 May

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.”
~ Robert Pirsig

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Of Mrs. Rice, Daily Mass, and the Camaraderie of Faith

5 Feb

southbendmassmob

“The Blessed Eucharist is precisely food, which explains why it is the one sacrament meant to be received daily.”
~ Frank Sheed

“How’d you know Mrs. Rice?”

The question came from a St. Pat’s regular I recognized, but rarely speak to. A midweek, midday Mass had just concluded, and the church was emptying.

“Mainly from here,” I replied. “In fact, I couldn’t help looking over to her pew when I came in today.” I paused and added, “I’ll miss her.”

He nodded. Mrs. Rice had passed away a couple weeks prior, and my questioner and I had both attended her funeral Mass. After a brief exchange regarding our mutual connections with the Rice family, he and I departed St. Pat’s to get on with our days.

The great thing about that subtle interaction is how perfectly it illustrates the singular experience of daily Mass habitués, especially the anonymity. Daily Mass-goers frequently gravitate to churches other than their home parishes. It’s a matter of geography and chronology: “When can I get to Mass today? Where will I be? What is the closest Mass I can get to?” More often than not, it’ll be some little parish downtown, or maybe a Catholic hospital or college chapel, so the crowd that gathers for daily Mass will be gathering from home churches all over town. Sometimes we know each other by name; typically we don’t. We nod to each other in recognition, we take our usual spots, we worship, we line up for Communion, and then we leave – again, with acknowledging nods – until we meet again: maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.

What binds us together is that unspoken common concession that we’re losers in need of grace – that we all have gaping chinks and deficits, and that we all share a craving for Christ. Each time we show up for weekday Mass, we’re silently admitting our weakness to the strangers around us, and we’re confident that, in some way, those strangers around us have our spiritual backs.

That was certainly true for Mrs. Rice, whether you knew her or not.

Her full name was Mary Elizabeth Rice, but she was always Mrs. Rice to me. She was a commanding figure in the South Bend Catholic community, and not just because of her family connections and progeny. It’s true that she’d been married to legendary Notre Dame law professor Dr. Charlie Rice, outspoken defender of the Church, the unborn, and traditional family values – and that she’d supported him in all his many undertakings for over 50 years. Moreover, it’s also true that Mrs. Rice raised a houseful of children (11 in all) who’ve become prominent figures in their own right – not to mention her many accomplished grandchildren. Mrs. Rice embraced her vocation as wife and mother with a fierce devotion.

Plus there was also her own industrious volunteer work: Founding a center for training in natural family planning; supporting the work of the Women’s Care Center and other pro-life organizations; teaching CCD and catechizing First Communicants; helping out wherever needed in her parish, parish school, and beyond. “Her empathy and kindness led others to share their life stories within minutes of meeting her,” reads her obituary, “and she helped countless people with the smallest of problems and the most overwhelming of tragedies.”old-st-pats

But that’s not how I remember her.

“She was a daily Communicant,” the obituary notes, which is something I can attest to myself. Sometimes at the Medical Center, sometimes at the Cathedral, but usually at old St. Patrick’s or St. Hedwig’s in downtown South Bend. She always sat towards the back, and frequently took her seat in the pew just as Mass was starting, so I wouldn’t see her until the sign of peace. Turning and seeing her there at those moments, I never failed to experience a mini rush of solicitude and grace – like, “Phew, there’s Mrs. Rice.” Her wee nod and quick wink at that point, instead of the classic peace sign or wave, was such a gift – like a muted, Julian-like affirmation that “all shall be well,” regardless of what worries or missteps plaguing my thoughts.

Mrs. Rice would be the first to admit that we don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy. We go to Mass every day because we’re not holy – because we want to get holy, or sometimes because we just want to want to get holy. Deep down everyone is desperate for the divine, and daily Mass-goers are utterly convinced that the liturgy is a readily accessible threshold of heaven – that the altar is the place where the divine crashes to earth each day; the place, right around the corner, where we have the outrageous privilege of physically approaching God.

“If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured,” the woman with the hemorrhage says in a recent Gospel – that’s us at Mass, isn’t it? At least it’s me. I’m so screwed up, I’m selfish and petty, and even my meager attempts to be virtuous are fraught with ego and mixed motives – if only I can touch what is touching him! That’s what daily Mass is all about, even when we don’t receive Holy Communion. We’re there to bask in his presence, to retreat from our patterns of pride and our routine rebellions, to gain hope, eternal perspective, and, often enough, the sustenance to carry on. Ridiculously, he calls us to be saints, and yet he matches that unprecedented demand with the stuff to carry it out: himself, his own life, his very love-drenched personhood extended to us as a morsel. “Take and eat,” he says, and when we refuse that offer, for whatever reason, he says, “Take your time – for now, just rest nearby.”

And, speaking from experience, I know that kind of Communion-less rest, when it has to happen, goes a lot easier when folks like Mrs. Rice are praying along with you. She was like a latter-day Anna the prophetess, a parochial fixture whose very being quietly “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like I said, I’ll miss her at Mass – as will others who may not have known her name. What’s more, I’ll continue to look over to her pew at St. Pat’s, confident that she’s praying along with us still.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

14 Dec

kids_in_church

“First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.”
~ Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii

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A Tree, a Tax Collector, and a View of God

27 Nov

zacchaeus-1

“How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down then you’ll never know.”
~
Stephen Schwartz, “Colors of the Wind

Back before Rotten Tomatoes was a wireless ubiquity, my family depended on paperback movie guides, and our go-to was the one edited by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Like similar resources, Martin and Porter used an easily decipherable rating system, but since their tastes so often matched our own, they became our cinematic oracles when we made our own selections at Blockbuster or the library.

However, there’s another reason we liked their guide so much – one that has lasted into the internet age: the turkey reviews. Instead of assigning a single star (out of a possible five) to the worst of the worst, Martin and Porter substituted a tiny turkey graphic. It was easy to spot as you flipped through the pages, and the associated reviews often made for highly entertaining reading.

That was especially the case when a turkey review was brief – in fact, the shorter the better. “They don’t make them any worse than this,” reads the Martin and Porter review of The Eye of the Snake (1990), and, for The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1981), they wrote that the “only good thing about this film is the title.” Sometimes you’d luck out and come across a turkey review amounting to a single word – “Incoherent” captured up their thoughts on Streetwalkin’ (1985).

Then there’s my all-time favorite turkey, Mr. Sycamore (1975). “A mailman decides to turn into a tree,” Martin and Porter explained. “Peculiar and pointless.” So succinct and evocative, it’s all you need to know. Indeed, it almost makes you want to track down Mr. Sycamore to watch, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not (and I never have), but it does make you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind – what were they thinking? If you look up the Tomatoes synopsis, it tells of a protagonist postman who chooses arboreal transformation over a dismal future with his domineering wife. Weird, I know, but somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea, and that somebody decided that a sycamore tree was a decent symbol for psychic withdrawal and insulation.

Biblically speaking, that filmmaking somebody couldn’t have been more wrong – that is, if St. Luke has anything to say about it.

Luke’s story of Zacchaeus made an appearance in the liturgy earlier this month, and it got me thinking about Mr. Sycamore. As you’ll recall, Zacchaeus was somewhat diminutive, and so he had to resort to humiliating measures in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus strolling through Jericho. Leaping up and down behind the crowd apparently wasn’t enough, and if he attempted to push through to the front, he probably met with elbows in the face from those who reviled his traitorous tax-collecting occupation.

Nevertheless, Zacchaeus refused to give up, and he scaled a nearby sycamore tree in the nick of time. His eyes and the Savior’s met, and an extraordinary encounter ensued. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus insisted, “for today I must stay at your house.” Joy and conversion followed, and the tax collector’s life was changed forever. “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord declared. What’s more, as if to rebuke the crowd who “grumbled” at his choice of pals, Jesus explained that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

So, why a sycamore? Was Luke making a symbolic point? Not necessarily. It’s likely one of those lovely details in the Gospels that indicate that a recorded event was an actual occurrence – not just a figurative fiction or a clever analogy invented by the evangelist. That is, it wasn’t just “a tree” that the tax collector climbed, but a specific tree – a particular sycamore in fact, or rather a “sycamore fig” to distinguish it from the non-fruit bearing tree that our postman friend probably turned into. Not surprisingly, the actual tree of Zacchaeus became famous, and there’s an old sycamore in Jericho that locals associate with the Gospel story.

All that falls under what the Catechism calls the literal sense of Scripture, but we’re further invited to consider the story’s spiritual sense. “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117).

In this regard, I’ve always appreciated the Ignatian approach to Biblical meditation (especially the Gospels) in which we put ourselves into the scene we’re reading about – and not just the character we might naturally gravitate to, but perhaps all of them in turn. In the case of Luke’s narrative, it’s desirable to take up the mantle of Zacchaeus, to picture ourselves surrendering to Christ and radically reforming our lives, but we should also consider ourselves in the guise of the rabble, who block the publican’s line of sight and who dis Jesus when he elects to dine with the despised.

Then there’s that sycamore, almost a character unto itself. I picture it in the backdrop of the narrative, off to the side and part of the scenery – nothing special, just another tree. Up in front, the incarnate deity is passing by, and everyone’s attention is riveted on him. Meanwhile, stage left, there’s the little tax collector, jumping for the tree’s lower branches, and then ascending high above the mob. Far from being a metaphorical hideout as in Mr. Sycamore, the tree of Zacchaeus was a launch pad, lifting the outcast to new heights of levity and love.

That tree is us, I think – it’s the Church – and the sycamore’s humble part in the Zacchaeus story parallels the hidden role we often play in helping others to see Jesus. We’re always on stage when people know we’re Catholic, even when we’re not consciously being “religious.” Since our relationship with Jesus has ups and downs like any relationship, folks may not always see Christ clearly in our behaviors and speech – but that’s OK. We needn’t be spiritual superstars all the time to witness to the Lord. Sometimes (often?) the very human you-cant-take-it-with-you-groupordinariness and frailty of our faith life is just enough for others to clamber up for a vision of God.

Which brings me to one final sycamore reference – in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 stage play You Can’t Take It With You. Our kids’ high school put it on in October, and seeing it reminded me of how much I love Frank Capra’s ebullient film version (which garnered five stars from Martin and Porter). It’s a delightful comedy featuring the oddball Vanderhof/Sycamore family and a reassuring portrayal of how grace can operate in even the most turbulent, goofy circumstances.

There’s nothing chichi about the Sycamore household (like the tree they’re named for), and they’ve got internal troubles galore. Nonetheless, they’re a beacon in their community, a ladder of optimistic vision. Theirs is a domestic church that spills over with joie de vivre, and their example of mutual love and loyalty are a healing balm for those around them. It’s as if the Sycamore’s shortcomings are themselves transformed into a source of hope – a persistent hope, as reflected in the concluding dinner prayer uttered by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore):

Well, sir, here we are again. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over. Course, the fireworks all blew up, but we can’t very well blame that on you. Anyway, everything’s turned out fine, as it usually does…. We’ve all got our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we still leave that up to you. Thank you.

Deference. Trust. Gratitude. Peace. These must be among the lofty “ways” and “paths” Isaiah was talking about in yesterday’s Advent kickoff reading (albeit the prophet admittedly draws on a geological image rather than a tree):

The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills…. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”

As we begin walking the Advent path of discovery, let’s remember that we ourselves are the Lord’s house – that we are that mountain raised above the hills, regardless of our inadequacies. Like Grandpa Vanderhof, we needn’t worry, for it’s the Lord who does the establishing and saving. All we need to do is make way for those who’ll scramble over us for a better view.
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Theologizing in a Vacuum

16 Nov

For in what concerns God
to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.
~ St. Cyril of Jerusalem

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Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov

trappists

“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

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