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A Patron for Codependents: St. Samson of Dol (d. 565)

28 Jul

“We can live without drugs and alcohol, but…people are more complicated than substances.”
~ Dr. Kristi Pikiewicz

St. Samson was a big deal. Born in Wales, educated by monks, and seemingly destined for leadership, Samson was “perhaps the most important British missionary of the 6th century,” according to David Farmer, and “an excellent example of the wandering Celtic monk-bishop.” He established new abbeys, reformed older ones, preached the Gospel boldly, and ably led the flocks entrusted to him.

Although he pined for a hermit’s life in the wilderness, Samson ended his days in Dol, Brittany, where he established a monastic missionary outpost and served as an irregular episcopal ordinary. We might not be very familiar with St. Samson in the States, but his feast (July 28) is celebrated throughout the British Isles and beyond, and there are numerous European parishes named for him. A stellar saint, to be sure!

But I’m guessing there’s a shadow side to his story that’s easy to overlook.

After his initial formation and ordination in the abbey of Llanwit, Samson transferred to the community on Caldey Island where he took up duties as cellarer – a kind of steward of the monastery’s foodstuffs and drink. This is significant, because Caldey’s Abbot, St. Pyr, seems to have had a bit of a drinking problem – and the cellarer would’ve been the first to know about it. The annals tell of Pyr getting so snockered one night that he stumbled into a well and died as a result of the fall. And since such spectacular episodes of intoxication are highly unlikely to be isolated events, Abbot Pyr probably had been battling the bottle long before his mortal mishap.

Now, Pyr’s lack of temperance and unseemly end might cast some doubt on the suitability of his saintly designation – a title ascribed to him by tradition rather than formal canonization. We have to remember, though, that those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction are still called to become saints and, what’s more, can become saints. Truly, everyone can become a saint – even me, even you – and God gives us the grace to do so.

But besides questions related to Pyr’s habits and holiness, what fascinates me about his story is that the abbot’s propensity to over imbibe must’ve been an open secret in the cloister. Sure, Samson the cellarer knew, but so did everybody else – how could they not? A monastery is an intimate family, after all, and the abbot is the dad – in Pyr’s case, a dad crippled by addiction. How did Samson and his confreres deal with that?

It seems to me that it could very well have been a classic case of codependency.

Codependency is a controversial term these days, but it was all the rage not that long ago. It can apply to almost any flavor of dysfunctional family system, but it’s especially associated with alcoholic homes.

I know of it firsthand because my dad was an alcoholic. Like so many in that situation, I was clueless about the chaos at home and its connections to the booze. The family strife, the erratic behaviors, the cover-ups and pain – I naturally assumed that it was all normal. That it was what all families experienced. Why would I think otherwise?

Then my mom talked to me one night about something called Al-Anon – an organization that provides support for folks who live with alcoholics. She’d been in touch with them and was getting involved, looking for help. “There’s also a group for teenagers,” she told me. “Maybe you should consider going.”

I never did. Somehow, I still managed to get through high school and college, and then launched into the adventure of my own adulthood. I moved here and there, became a Catholic, dated off and on, and tried my hand at various pursuits. But there was definitely a gnawing void within – I was hurting, in agony.

At some point, somebody (my mom? a co-worker?) got me to read Janet Woititz’s 1983 book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and it was a game changer. What she described – the enabling, the duplicity, the stress, the craziness – really resonated. It prompted me to finally reach out for help – like my mother did so many years before – and I was able to separate my problems from my dad’s. He continued to struggle with his addiction, alternating between sobriety and drinking the rest of his life (rest in peace, dad), but I got to the place where I could see it as his struggle, not mine.

I loved my father, although sometimes I regret not loving him better – not to mention plenty of other regrets. Most of the time, however, thanks to writers like Woititz and a host of counselors, I can focus on the present and today’s challenges – the ones associated with being a husband, father, worker, and would-be saint. That’s plenty to deal with, and I’d like to think that my efforts honor my dad and the best parts of his legacy that live on in me.

St. Samson seems to have gone through a similar transformation. Whatever brand of codependent exigencies that preceded Pyr’s tragic demise, Samson stepped up and set a new course afterwards. He took up the abbot’s crozier and attempted to clean house at Caldey, but the community’s dysfunctional patterns were too entrenched and, in the words of Farmer, Samson “accordingly resigned the abbacy in disgust.” That action freed him up to seek out new opportunities to exercise his gifts, which led to the many foundations and apostolates he became associated with.

Clearly Samson strived to become the spiritual father that the impaired Pyr couldn’t quite manage. He left the brokenness of his past behind and forged a new path, striving to draw everyone he encountered closer to Christ. It seems that wherever he went, flourishing followed, and the honor in which his name is held to this day is testimony to how God worked in and through him.

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus assures us in the Gospel today, “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Those are precisely the promises that enabled St. Samson to move on from his unhealthy roots to a more glorious future.

They’re the same promises that we broken folk can rely on today.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

31 Mar

“It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and…which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
~
Pope St. Paul VI

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” said my wife, Nancy. “That new picture you got from the library? You hung it upside down.”

She was referring to “Goldfinch and Cherry Tree” (c. 1834) by Hokusai Katsushika. It’s the latest installment in our household gallery which features a solitary work of art, intermittently alternated, at the bottom of our main staircase. Our source is the main branch of the superb St. Joseph County Public Library, which has an extensive collection of framed prints that patrons can check out for a few weeks at a time.

I remember when I first made use of this unusual service after hearing about it from friends. I was outside the downtown branch’s children’s area on the third floor when I spied a framed print propped up on a tripod. It was something recognizable – maybe the “Mona Lisa” or something famous like that. “Can I really check this out on my card?” I asked a passing librarian.

“Sure,” she replied with a shrug. “And there’s more in that hallway around the corner.”

Indeed there was. Scores of framed prints of various sizes and shapes. Paintings, photos, drawings, and even retro promotional posters. The Becker Rotating Stairwell Gallery was born, and I’m told by the librarians that many in the community regularly swap out selections like we do. And since the checked-out items, like books, can be renewed twice, that means that there’s a steady flow of local domestic curators returning to the library every couple months to select something new to exhibit.

By default, I’ve become the curator of our own rotating display. I’ll turn in the previous selection at the circulation desk, and then head upstairs to browse the available collection. Sometimes I’ll search for a specific print, especially if someone at home made a request, but usually I’ll just go with my gut and choose something that catches my fancy at the moment. A big, bright Georgia O’Keefe flower is ideal in the middle of winter, for example, but something languid and light seems more fitting as the weather warms – like “The Siesta” (1890) by Van Gogh, one of Nancy’s favorites.

And that’s one of the joys of this routine now that we’ve been doing it for so many years. Some of the repeat picks have become familiar to us all, and we even have certain ones that stand out in our memories. Based on an informal survey of the fam and my own (albeit biased) impressions, here’s a few that rise to the top of the list.

  1. Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World” (1948): My daughter, Joan, herself a serious artist, particularly recalls that “we once had a copy of ‘Christina’s World,’ which I really liked.” Me, too. To view this poignant scene through Wyeth’s eyes is to be simultaneously unsettled and comforted. The lush, illuminated landscape is peaceful; the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings on the horizon, reassuring. Yet, the young girl in the foreground appears to be lacking composure as she begins to crawl, leaning toward her home and yearning for shelter and solace. The fact that the painting’s subject, Anna Christina Olson, was in fact crippled from a childhood illness offers some insight into the painting’s allurement, but its power to conjure wistful reflection extends well beyond its historic origins.
  2. Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I: Tomato 46” (1968): If there’s one print that’s come to represent the spirit of our revolving collection, it’s this pop classic. “That one is clearly the family favorite,” writes my daughter, Meg, although my wife would demur – strongly. Even so, Nancy demonstrates a tremendous generosity of spirit in quietly enduring the soup can’s appearance in our stairwell about once a year. Personally, I think “Tomato 46” is hilarious, and it certainly challenges assumptions about what art can and should be – which was part of what Warhol was getting at. Plus, it prompts me to contemplate this thoroughly modern artist’s unusual interior topography, for he was a Mass-going Eastern-rite Catholic who respectfully, perhaps conscientiously, avoided the sacraments. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the church,” said a priest who knew him, and we can hope that this visionary seeker made his peace with God before his death in 1987.
  3. M.C. Escher, “High and Low” (also known as “Up and Down,” 1947): This lithograph, like so many works by Escher, is abrupt and intellectually demanding. It’s also another consensus favorite in my family, and I think its occasional placement at the bottom of our staircase offers a subtle ironic counterpoint to the routine clambering of our daily lives. You have to pause when you see it, slow down and ponder its interlocking, yet conflicting perspectives, or else ignore it and pass it by. Its beauty is in its complexity, and while it is narrowly vertical, it nonetheless prompts the viewer to expand his mental horizons. Like the work’s two pairs of figures gazing at each other amid the convoluted angles, we’re invited to broaden our outlooks while attending to what’s right in front of us.

And that brings me back to Katsushika’s “Goldfinch” and Nancy’s admonition about its topsy-turvy placement. “That’s what Katharine said when I put it up,” was my reply. “But the hanging wire is positioned that way, and, besides, it looks even weirder the other way around.”

Kath chimed in. “Yeah, it’s not right,” she said, adding, “I don’t like this one.”

And yet, there it hangs in our stairwell – and it’ll stay there for another, oh, six weeks or thereabouts, despite Kath’s disapproval. When I snagged it off the wall at the library, I saw the graceful ascent of the cherry blossoms contrasted against the deep blue background – nice. Frankly, the finch escaped my notice at the time, but his awkward pose makes the painting all the more appealing to me now.

For, as curator (and dad), I’m not simply interested in adorning our stairwell with pretty pictures. I’m especially inclined to host images that rattle and rouse, confound and console. I think that’s what Pope St. John Paul II was driving at when he wrote about the “art of education” in his 1999 Letter to Artists (§4). He explained that “genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (§6). Thus, the Katsushika print is beautiful, but not only beautiful. The upturned bird catches our attention and imagination: Is the artist telling us something about himself? His community or society? The world?

Moreover, how can Katsushika’s vision inform our own? As St. John Paul notes, we might not all be artists, but all of us are called to make of our lives “a work of art, a masterpiece” (§2). For now, Katsushika is a resident mentor in that regard, and we can dwell for a time with his artistic expression. Who knows? Maybe “Goldfinch” will have even grown on Kath by the time it’s returned to the library. Even if it doesn’t, she, like the rest of us, will have benefited from the encounter.
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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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