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Blessed Babbler: Notker of Saint Gall (c. 840-912)

17 Sep

“For although I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge.”
~
St. Paul

“N-O-T-K-E-R,” my wife spelled out to me. “Ever heard of him?”

Nope – football maybe? Some obscure character from Shakespeare?

“Saint,” she said.

Nancy was scrambling to contact all the confirmands for our parish’s upcoming Confirmation Mass: Nailing down details about attire and arrival, times and seating arrangements, and, of course, Confirmation names.

“Apparently he’s the patron of stutterers.”

I’m guessing if you’re of a certain age (my age, that is), you can’t hear the word “stutterer” without immediately thinking of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. “B-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet,” they sang – arguably the most famous stammer in modern history. The funny thing is that the 1974 song was a really an elaborate prank. Randy Bachman wrote it for his brother, Gary, who had a speech impediment, and the recording itself was meant for Gary alone – it wasn’t supposed to wind up on an album or the airwaves.

Of course, it did – and it went soaring to the top of the charts. In fact, it turned out to be BTO’s only #1 hit. “When it was all over, to realize that I could have a million-seller and a number one record without sitting down with mental giants…you really can’t,” Randy Bachman commented later. “The magic is out of your hands.”

Magic indeed – a top hit featuring a sputtering lead singer was a charmed feat.

It turns out that Bl. Notker was able to accomplish tremendous feats himself despite his own speaking problems – which earned him the nickname “Balbulus.” Born to a prominent family, Notker was educated by the monks of Saint Gall Abbey in Switzerland. Eventually Notker took the habit himself and ended up serving his monastic brethren as librarian, guest master, chronicler, and, yes, teacher.

But there’s more. It appears that the humble Notker had a knack for Latin meter and verse, and he not only edited a collection of liturgical Sequences in use at that time, he also added a number of his own – like maybe 40 of them or more. He wrote hymns, he wrote biographies, and he is believed to be the author of the Gesta Caroli Mani (“The Deeds of Charles the Great”), a landmark anecdotal and didactic profile of the Emperor Charlemagne in verse. The monastic biographer at St. Gall’s, Ekkehard IV, characterized Notker as “delicate of body but not of mind, stuttering of tongue but not of intellect, pushing boldly forward in things Divine, a vessel of the Holy Spirit without equal in his time.”

The monk’s stutter, in other words, didn’t prevent him from conveying the Word. That’s good news for those among us who do struggle with verbal communication – no laughing matter despite BTO’s musical jest.

It’s also good news for those who serve as lay readers at Mass. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I’m prone to falter whenever I stand at the lectern – despite being otherwise largely falter-free.

I’m reminded of the movie “The King’s Speech” (2010) about the rise of the stuttering Prince Albert to the British throne and his rhetorical challenges as King George VI. There’s a scene where the King (Colin Firth) confronts his impudent speech coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), in Westminster Abbey. “I have a right to heard!” the monarch shouts in fury. “I have a voice!”

“Yes, you do,” replies Logue – and so do we.

Those of us who approach the ambo to proclaim the Word of God should take heart; King George’s declaration should be our own. When we receive a mandate to serve as lectors at Mass, we’re given a voice – and there’s even, to paraphrase Randy Bachman, a bit a grace that’s out of our hands.

A quick Google check turns up St. Bede the Venerable as the most popular patron of lectors, with St. Pollio, a Roman martyr, a close second. For me, I’ll be invoking the name of Bl. Notker the next time I take up the lectionary. I’ll flounder; I’ll misspeak; I’ll hem and haw. But I’ll trust that, despite my faults, grace will attend my voice, and God’s Word will be heard.
_________________________

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

12 Sep

“That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD…” (Ps 27).

I sat in my usual place on Mary’s side of the church for the 5:30 evening Mass, which is why I didn’t spot Felicia until it was time for Holy Communion. She’d come to St. Matt’s with Anthony, and Anthony always sits on the Joseph side off the main aisle.

It must’ve been a Thursday, my day to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Following the fraction rite and the centurion’s prayer, the celebrant entrusted me with the Precious Blood, and I made my way over to the Joseph side of the church to await communicants.

“The Blood of Christ,” I said as I presented the chalice.

“Amen,” the first recipient replied with a bow before receiving. Once the vessel was returned, I swiped it with a purificator, rotated it slightly, and held it ready for the next in line.

Only the next in line eventually was Felicia – and I admit I was taken aback. “The Blood of Christ,” I said holding the chalice aloft, and I know my eyebrows went up as well. St. Matt’s wasn’t Felicia’s parish, and I’d never seen her there for daily Mass before. Plus I knew she’d been sick, very sick – too sick, I would’ve surmised, to be out to a parish on the other side of town.

Felicia caught my expression and flashed her wide smile. “A-men,” she said with emphasis. After receiving her sacred sip and handing back the cup, she leaned in: “Come talk with me afterwards.”

Following the closing prayers, I tracked her down in Anthony’s pew. They were talking – rather Felicia was talking and Anthony was listening. She looked fatigued, but she spoke with her characteristic passion nonetheless, expostulating, pointing. When I walked up, she grabbed my hand, clutched it, clasped it tight – and kept on talking. “It’s in the way,” she was saying to both of us as she motioned toward the altar with her free hand. “Someone needs to tell the priest to get that cross out of the way – get a smaller cross.” She was referring to our altar crucifix, which, admittedly, is on the tall side. “It’s in the way,” Felicia repeated. “It blocks the gestures, the epiclesis. Nobody can see the epiclesis.” Still hanging on to my hand – as if to ensure I was listening, that I was catching the urgency of her entreaty – she emphasized the importance of an unimpeded line of sight during the consecration.

It was awkward – I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, for it was clear that there was more behind Felicia’s animated pleas than a liturgical preference. She kept staring at the altar, staring at the place where her visual participation in the epiclesis and Eucharistic offering had been disrupted – gestures that, in the words of Sofia Cavalletti and Patricia Coulter, “express the covenant in a visible way: God’s self-giving to us, our gift of self to God.” Through her eyes, Felicia seemed to be reaching out to the Good Shepherd whose self-giving appearance on the altar had been momentarily obscured.

In time, the three of us made our way to the exit where we briefly embraced and said our goodbyes. I took off, but Felicia remained behind on the steps to continue tutoring Anthony – to extend and expand the delight of that shared liturgical encounter.

The whole episode was somewhat dreamlike, even strange, yet I was so glad for it. It turned out to be a blessed and serendipitous opportunity to take leave of an old friend. A week and a half later, I heard that she’d passed away – at home, surrounded by her family, peaceably.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker, Felicia’s former pastor, came over from Fort Wayne to celebrate her funeral Mass. “That was her place, right down there,” he said during the homily, pointing out the first pew where Felicia’s family was seated. “She’d sit there in the front, leaning over, on the edge of her pew – as if to be as close as possible to the Word, listening with full attention, ready to respond.”

Listening – and watching, I’ll bet. Just like she did at St. Matt’s, yearning and stretching, thrusting aside distractions, zeroing in on the Good Shepherd, and inviting others to join her – through her words and teaching, yes, but particularly through her forward-looking example.

“Here below we know God…by the idea we have formed of him,” writes Frank Sheed, but “in heaven, our seeing will be direct…. That is why the very essence of the life of heaven is called the Beatific Vision – which means the seeing that causes bliss.”

Felicia’s life revolved around promoting and instilling blissful sight – in her family and friends, in her school, in the children given into her care, including my children. What a blessing to be remembered that way. God, I hope I live my life such that I can be similarly remembered. Toward that end, I’m banking on Felicia’s prayers, like an unseen clutch of the hand, like a nudge. Redirect my vision accordingly, Lord. Help me see what she saw.
______________________

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

25 Jun

No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God.
~ C.S. Lewis

The Gospels are filled with weird scenes – which you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of an incarnate God. There’s no precedent for Jesus, no template or benchmark. He’s extraordinary in so many ways, so it’s no surprise that his actions and words would be extraordinary as well – at least on first hearing.

You know this from witnessing your own children thrill at the coming of Christmas when they were very young. The story of the Bethlehem invasion was fresh and exciting – and fantastic! The same goes for Passiontide as our young ones grew morose upon hearing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, which transmuted into delight upon their discovery of Easter and the resurrection.

Then there’s us. We don’t think of the Gospel accounts as unusual anymore because we’ve heard them countless times, and we’re accustomed to their quirky narrative shifts – even if we don’t really understand them. Like Judas, for instance. We hear about Jesus choosing him as an apostle, despite his knowing (as God) that Judas would betray him down the line. The Lord even sends out the future traitor with the other apostles to minister to the crowds – what? Yet we just glaze over when we hear it proclaimed at Mass or referenced in a sermon. Yawn.

Once in a while, however, every once in a while, the Scriptures come alive again, even for us, even for me. Maybe it’s a particular lector’s voice and intonation; maybe it’s an enlightening commentary or sermon; always it’s grace.

Such a grace came my way recently as I reviewed the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. There’s a version of the story in Matthew, but fuller accounts appear in Mark and Luke. The action takes place in Galilee in the latter days of the Lord’s public ministry there. He and the disciples had just arrived in the region of Gerasa (or Gadara, or Gergesa – there’s some confusion about this) after a rough passage across the Sea of Galilee. A deadly tempest had terrified the disciples, but a sleepy Jesus had taken it in stride and quelled it almost as an afterthought. The disciples were duly impressed: “They were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mk 4.41).

As if to answer that question, Jesus followed up his demonstration of power over natural forces with a startling demonstration of his supernatural dominion.

As soon as he and his crew hit the Gerasene shore, a wild man accosted them from a graveyard. I picture him as a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid and Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol – all hair and height, bruises and blood, with shackles and chains rattling about. The possessed Galilean tomb-dweller, hardly still a man, rushed the Lord and demanded an accounting. “What have you to do with me, Jesus,” he shouted, adding a confession, “Son of the Most High God?” Finally, a plea. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (Lk 8.28). When Jesus asked for his name, the wild man claimed, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

We’re definitely in strange territory here. I see a walking stadium full of demons testifying to Jesus’ divine identity. Also, I see a tortured, lonely soul, a castoff loser and social threat, rebuffing the ministrations of the one he knows could totally heal him. Stranger still, Jesus is choosing to chat with him – or them (pronouns with Legion are tricky). But what’s there to chat about? Let’s free the poor guy from his spiritual affliction and restore him to his family already – ba-boom.

Yet, the strangeness only widens as the Gospel writers next draw our attention to a herd of pigs – pigs! a herd! – on a nearby hill. You’d think Jesus and his Jewish companions would’ve avoided this area altogether rather than risk even the slightest association with pork. Nope, and the pigs actually end up playing a central role in the tale. “Send us to the swine,” the Legion of demons begged Jesus, “let us enter them” (Mk 5.12). I envision a Messianic shoulder shrug and toss of the head, followed by the Aramaic equivalent of “Why not?” before Jesus gives in to the odd petition. “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine,” continues St. Luke, “and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (8.33).

The Gospel narratives move on to the swift reaction of the swineherds and local townspeople (they “were seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to “depart from them”), as well as the equally swift recovery and commissioning of Legion (whom Jesus sent home to proclaim “how much the Lord has done for you”). But I’m stuck back on that hillside. “The demons puzzle us,” writes Frank Sheed. “The pigs puzzle us.” Right, as does Jesus himself, for it seems to me that he took pity on those demons when he acceded to their request. Was the porcine possession a show of compassion for the hellish habitués? A bizarre amnesty, no matter how fleeting, granted by the Good Shepherd himself? I’m with Sheed who comments, “We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.”

Frankly, I’m also interested in reading deeper into the minds of those devils. They must’ve known that they were still destined to return to Hell eventually, for even if their pig-hosts hadn’t immediately rushed to a watery demise, they would’ve been butchered soon enough. Since Legion’s demons had no doubt about who and what Jesus was (and is), what could’ve motivated their plea for temporary clemency? Surely not love – but…hope? Is it possible that these damned creatures were displaying a last vestige of hope, however unlikely?

We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the graphic transfer of Legion’s burden to the doomed pigs was a stark display of release and liberation. Perhaps, as Jerome Kodell suggests, it was meant to broadcast Legion’s fresh start, providing his community “visible proof that the demons have left the man.” Granted it required significant destruction of property (which prompted the objections of those swineherds), yet maybe such was justified in order to reassure Legion’s people of his radical transformation – and even Legion himself.

Weird as it is, I think the pig-demon transfer in this Gospel story is a valuable illustration of why we have auricular confession. As the Catechism affirms, the sacrament of reconciliation requires the penitent to be contrite, practice humility, and “confess with the lips” (CCC 1450). Certainly there are exceptions – speech impairments, for example, and extreme debilitation – but ordinarily, in “accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins” (Congregation for Divine Worship). It follows that the confessor must ordinarily hear those sins and voice an absolution.

“But why do you have to confess your sins out loud?” my Protestant students often ask me. “Why can’t you just confess them directly to God – in private? Or just write them down?”

Next time I get that question, I’ll have a ready answer. “Because we’re Legion,” I’ll say. “Because our sins are like demons, and we need concrete, sensory reassurance that they’ve been excised from our souls.”

When I confess my sins, as humiliating as it is, I’m always glad to be getting them out of my head and into the open air. To hear myself pronounce my self-accusations, knowing that the alter Christus is craning an ear, means that my sins are gone, they’ve been sent over the confessional cliff, and they’re drowning in grace – what a relief!

Then it’s my turn to listen, and the priest’s verbal funneling of the Lord’s forgiveness is an electrifying largesse (CCC 1465). It’s a new beginning, every time. And every time, I’m sent out unburdened after my penitential encounter, but with an implicit (sometimes explicit) commission, similar to Legion’s: “Go in peace,” the priest may intone, “and proclaim to the world the wonderful works of God who has brought you salvation.”

They’re words I never tire of hearing, and the strange mercy they bespeak never grows old.
_________________________

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Blinkers, Bakers, and Benevolence

25 Mar

“The quick slick confident judgments we are forever making are merely silly. Who can read the chaos in another’s soul from which his actions proceed?”
~ Frank Sheed

Read more…

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Of Concupiscence, Wheat Beer, and the Princess Bride

8 Jun

Smoked-Gratzer-wheat-beer-300x170
Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me
Where the songs of all the sinless
Sweep across the crystal sea.
~ William Chatterton Dix

Read more…

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On the Glory of Opaque Self-Awareness

26 Jan

widow's mite_costa

Since it belongs to the supernatural order,
grace escapes our experience (CCC 2005).

Read more…

Fountain of Grace

20 Sep

fountain

SMITH: I stick up for the thing every man has a right to. Perhaps the only thing that every man has a right to.

MORRIS: And what is that?

SMITH: The benefit of the doubt.

(G.K. Chesterton)

I have a short list of songs I’d love to play on the drums. There’s “Good Times Roll” by the Cars, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band makes the cut as well, but I don’t think I could ever duplicate drummer Gary Mallaber’s syncopated hi-hat magic, even back in my high school heyday.

Joe-Walsh-Rocky-Mtn-feat-imageThen there’s Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” his slow-churning paean to life in Colorado. For one thing, it’s straight-on rock, but with a bluesy tinge, giving it a measured pace – more my speed in other words. Plus, it came out when I was a young transplant to Boulder from New Jersey, so I readily identified with Walsh’s love of the mile-high state. “Couldn’t get much higher,” he sings. “The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.” No offense to Jersey, but it’s hard to beat living at the foot of snowcapped peaks.

The song appears on Walsh’s 1973 album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” and I wore it out on my stereo – even playing along on my Ludwig drum kit, much to my family’s dismay. It’s a happy, exuberant tune, and still fun to sing along with when it comes up on the classic rock station. But Walsh himself? Obviously he was a fine musician and songwriter – something that even a middle-class pop star wannabe like me could recognize, especially once Walsh joined forces with the Eagles during their “Hotel California” days. Otherwise, I never gave him much thought, I suppose, and if anything I probably assumed he was just another rowdy rock star – and, keeping with stereotype, a druggie to boot.

That changed this week.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an older news item in the Boulder Daily Camera. “Did you ever know about this sad and interesting connection between Boulder and Joe Walsh?” he asked. I read through the feature, and suddenly Joe Walsh went from generic rock star to real human being – an individual, with a story and a history, complete with the same emotional wrenchings up and down that life throws at all of us.

It turns out that about the time I was bingeing on his music in Boulder, Walsh was living there himself, recording at the Caribou Ranch up in Nederland, and enjoying a rich family life with his wife, Stefany Rhodes, and their young daughter, Emma. While Walsh toured, Rhodes would stay in Boulder, taking Emma to a park near their north side home, or bringing her to other homes for playgroups.

125134599_1392404907In 1974, just weeks shy of Emma’s third birthday, Rhodes was driving Emma to one of those playgroups when another driver ran a stop sign and crashed into them. Emma’s injuries were massive and she never recovered. Both Rhodes and Walsh, who was on his way home from a concert tour when the accident happened, were understandably devastated.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In addition to writing and recording a song in honor of his beloved daughter, Walsh went about establishing a physical monument to her as well – a water fountain in the park she played at so often, along with a memorial plaque:

This fountain is given in loving memory of 
Emma Walsh 
April 29, 1971-April 1, 1974

“The fountain was all Joe’s doing, really,” said Emma’s mom, Stefany Rhodes. “Joe was a very romantic person.” The whole story moved me to tears, and I was frankly embarrassed by my surprise that a hard rocking mega-star could be so tender and vulnerable.

And Walsh’s depth of feeling after Emma’s death wasn’t a fluke borne of fleeting intense grief either. Like so many pop stars, he did have his struggles with substance abuse and serial marriage, but it’s evident that through it all, he still managed a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness. “One thing I found in the music business is if you pretend like you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing,” Walsh admitted to 60 Minutes, “and I just never wanted anybody to find out that I didn’t have a clue.”

Clearly I was the one who didn’t have a clue. My surprise at Joe Walsh’s ordinary human frailty and profound grief belied assumptions and prejudices that made me ashamed. It brought to mind the famous “Who am I to judge?” rhetorical question posed by Pope Francis – especially since it had just come up in an NPR story last week. Journalist Paul Vallely revealed a detail about that controversial papal soundbite that I’d never heard before: That the Pope had been responding to questions about his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and his selection of Monsignor Battista Ricca as his point man. “He was asked about Ricca [and] the man’s gay past – if he seeks the Lord and repents, who am I to judge – that was the context,” Vallely said. “It was interesting that he was not going to be steered away from his intent to radically reform the bank by people leaking things like this.”6c8437783-130729-pope-plane-8a.nbcnews-fp-360-360

When the Pope’s comment hit the headlines in 2013, I, like many others, had a knee-jerk moment: What does he mean? How am I going to explain this to my kids and non-Catholic friends? Is Church teaching going to change?!

Nothing of the sort. It was just Pope Francis being Pope Francis: pastoral, merciful, and unpredictable. Now I come to find out that it was also Pope Francis showing his managerial backbone by refusing to allow vicious rumormongers from derailing his radical reforms.

In other words, “Who am I to judge?” applies to my assumptions about the Pope as much as anything – or anyone – else.

Back to Joe Walsh. The more I read, the more I discovered that there was way more to the notorious partyer and rowdy rocker than I could’ve ever ever imagined. He’s sober now, and more settled, which allows him to channel his tremendous talents and sensitivity in a myriad flourishing directions. “I look around and the people are very happy,” he said of his latest concerts. “We can elevate everybody’s overall feeling of good will and everybody has a great time — including me.”

Sounds like grace to me — and who am I to judge?

For the Lamb…will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rv 7.17).

bbbb_emma__________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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