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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Comics Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.


Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Preaching With His Life: Blessed Pierre Bonhomme

9 Sep

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35.5-6).

“Preach the Gospel at all times,” St. Francis is supposed to have said. “When necessary, use words.” There’s no hard evidence that the Troubadour of Assisi actually uttered this pithy phrase, but it’s the kind of thing you’d expect him to say, for Francis was all about putting faith into action.

But tradition also has it that Francis was ordained a deacon, which meant that he was trained to preach, and preach he did. He preached to the public, he preached to his followers, he even preached to the birds when nobody else would listen. Clearly St. Francis saw the value of preaching with words. He just matched those words with deeds.

Francis’s model for this, of course, was our Lord himself. Jesus spoke about healing and reconciliation, and he brought them about. It’s what we see in this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah had anticipated that the Messiah would do things like give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute – and Jesus proclaimed his fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictions (cf. Lk 4.21).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus backs up those claims with results. A deaf man with impaired speech is brought to the Lord for healing, Jesus responds decisively, and “immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly” (Mk 7.35). The Jewish crowd, well versed in messianic prophecy, caught the Isaiah associations immediately. “He has done all things well,” they started saying to each other. “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

There’s a deeper meaning here beyond the fulfillment of prophecy however. By restoring hearing and speech to the man, Jesus also presumably restored to him his place in the social order and his ability to be gainfully employed – that is, Jesus also healed the man’s dignity as a human person. Even deeper still, however, there’s this: The healing that the man in today’s Gospel received would allow him to hear the Good News and then respond by proclaiming it himself, and in that he is a model for us today. We, too, want to hear all that Jesus would have us hear in the Word, and we, too, want to be full-throated witnesses to that effect.

Such was also the ardent desire of Bl. Pierre Bonhomme, a French priest, evangelist, and founder whose feast is ordinarily observed today (September 9). Born and raised in Gramat in the Diocese of Cahors, Fr. Bonhomme returned to his hometown after his ordination in 1827. He was a devoted pastor and tireless preacher, but he also extended himself to those at the fringes of society, particularly the sick, the elderly, and the poor. He established charitable and educational institutions, and recruited others to assist him in these works. In time, he succeeded in founding a religious community of women dedicated to such efforts, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Calvary.

So, here’s Bl. Pierre, following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master, striving to match word with deed, and suddenly he lost his voice – right in the middle of preaching a retreat. He prayed for relief through the intercession of Our Lady of Rocamdour, to whom he had a special devotion, and he received a miraculous cure – just like the man in today’s Gospel.

Yet later, in 1848, he lost his voice again, and this time no amount of prayer brought it back. He was “obliged to give up preaching,” reads the Vatican’s biography, but the “priest did not despair; he trusted in God’s providence and believed that this would afford him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the flourishing congregation he had founded.” That is, like the Franciscan aphorism, Fr. Bonhomme kept right on preaching, even though he’d been deprived of words. In fact, his experience gave him a special awareness of the needs of the disabled, which resulted in his fostering new institutions to serve the deaf-mute population.

Fr. Bonhomme died in 1861, and Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 2003. The Congregation he founded still thrives today, with sisters serving communities around the world, and they look to Bl. Pierre as their patron. Additionally, and maybe ironically, he is also deemed a patron of preachers, despite the fact that he lost his voice – not once, but twice.

And here’s another irony: In between those two periods of involuntary silence, Bohomme sampled self-imposed speechlessness on retreat with the Trappists and then resolved to seek quiet seclusion as a way of life with the Carmelites. “However, the Bishop of Cahors did not accept this proposal,” according to his Vatican profile, “and encouraged him to continue his missionary activities.”

Cloistered communities dedicated to prayer, like the Trappists and Carmelites, are a great gift to the Church and certainly have their place – indeed, a privileged place. But most of us, like Bl. Pierre, are called to remain active in the world, preaching the Gospel daily, one way or another, loud and clear.

A version of this reflection appeared in the bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.

What God Can Do with Our Measly Loaves and Fishes

29 Jul

“Saint Olav turned her eyes toward
Christ on the cross – see, Kristin: God’s love.”
~ Sigrid Undset

This weekend’s Gospel is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s a miracle of Jesus reported in all four Gospels, so it carries considerable Biblical weight, and in John’s account, it takes place in close textual proximity to the Lord’s Bread of Life discourse – the one in which he explicitly tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

The Eucharistic message of the multiplication of loaves is unmistakable: There’s plenty of Jesus to go around. We need but appropriately avail ourselves of his infinite gift of self in Holy Communion to become ever more closely united to him and his mystical Body, the Church (CCC 1396).

But there’s lots more here. Consider the unnamed boy’s contribution of five barley loaves and two fish. Lots of fuss has been generated by widespread revisionist speculation that the boy’s selfless act simply inspired others in the crowd to fork over their own lunches, thereby producing the “miracle” of multiplication. Is it likely, though, that all four Evangelists would’ve chosen to include this astounding event in their Gospels if it’d only been an exercise in crowd-sourcing and generosity?

Instead, it seems clear that John and friends, and the entire early Church, were convinced of the event’s supernatural character, especially given its genesis in that lad’s humble, anonymous, no doubt faltering donation.

And what he donated was paltry enough: five cakes of barley, the grain of the poor, and two fish which were probably beginning to spoil after a long day in the sun. Nonetheless, Jesus accepted those offerings, blessed them and gave thanks, and then fed everybody – with lots of fresh leftovers thrown in for good measure.

Yes, a miraculous transformation from inadequacy to abundance, from paltry to plentitude, but it was a transformation that seemingly depended on somebody coming forward with what he had, no matter how meager. Plus, it’s an image of total surrender, total self-abandonment to divine providence, for the boy didn’t hold back – that is, he wasn’t embarrassed by his imperfect gift, and he didn’t just hand over a single fish and a loaf or two, keeping the rest for himself. He seemed to instinctively know, as all young children seem to know, that if we’re going to sacrifice, there can be no partial measures. And it didn’t matter that his sacrifice appeared insufficient; what mattered was his generous attempt to respond with all that he had.

It’s the template of every Christian’s life story, for it’s only when we approach the throne of grace fully conscious of our fundamental spiritual and moral impoverishment that Jesus can feed us with and transform us into himself. Sometimes we do that with the eager anticipation of a hungry crowd; sometimes we second-guess the Savior and hold back on him, shielding our sin and selfishness, sequestering our weaknesses that we’re not quite ready to reform. No matter. What counts is that we keep coming back – that we keep bringing him our puny loaves shot through with impurities and our slightly rotted fish, and that we keep trusting him to somehow suffuse them with grace and goodness enough to accomplish miracles.

Such was the transformation that appears to have taken place in the life of King St. Olaf of Norway, whose feast is ordinarily observed on this day (29 July). Born to a pagan chieftain around the year 995, Olaf’s adolescent years were marked by his training in the most excessive brand of Viking cruelty and lawlessness. In the course of subsequent political machinations and military maneuvers in England and elsewhere, Olaf received baptism around the age 18, and it took: The young warrior set out to align his dynastic aspirations in Norway with his newly adopted Christian faith.

This he did by first raising an effective campaign to throw off Danish and Swedish suzerainty in his homeland. Then, after declaring himself Norway’s King at age 21, he employed harsh tactics to root out residual pagan practices and establish a nationwide Catholic hegemony. Although largely successful in this effort, his ruthless methods, along with his occasional alliances with pagan leaders against Christian foes, led to a widespread rebellion against his leadership. King Canute the Great of Denmark and England eventually took over leadership of Norway in 1028, and Olaf fled into Russian exile. Intent on reclaiming his throne, Olaf returned to Norway in 1030 with an army comprising his own loyal countrymen and Swedish supporters, but he was struck down at the battle of Stiklestad on July 29.

Now here’s where the loaves and fishes bit comes in, for, as Hans Bekker-Nielsen notes, “soon after his death even his enemies came to recognize that they had killed a saint.” To buttress that sentiment, Grimketel, an English missionary and Olaf partisan, built a chapel on the spot where the King fell. Folks flocked to the site to ask for the martyr’s intercession and apparently their prayers were answered in spades. In time, Olaf’s remains were enshrined, and, as the glimmer of Danish overlordship began to wane, it was only natural that the Norwegian people would turn to the saintly Olaf – his body supposedly incorrupt – as their national patron, seeking his spiritual agency as they sought to restore native rule. This was in fact accomplished when Olaf’s bastard son, Magnus “the Good” was enthroned in 1035.

But, wait, let’s back up: Olaf? A saint? The formerly murderous and marauding Viking whose baptism only seemed to barely mitigate his savage ways? “He was a warrior, often brutal and a man of loose life,” reads the entry for St. Olaf in John Coulson’s Dictionary“but his reputation for sanctity was immediate on his death, and his cult cannot be entirely explained on political grounds.” Surely it can be granted that the job of king – let alone a medieval king bent on conquering and Christianizing a pagan people – does not lend itself easily to the ordinary strains of sanctifying influence. Yet, somehow, in the midst of imposing his royal will, Olaf drifted ever closer to conformity with his savior. “He was undoubtedly a great man,” Coulson continues, “and it seems that in some ways he must have been a good one.”

This is good news for all of us, because if Olaf could become a saint, anyone can become a saint. We have the idea, the ridiculous, impossible idea, that we first have to embody holiness in order to pursue holiness. Hogwash. Even St. Paul acknowledges as much in today’s second reading from Ephesians. The Apostle lays out the saintly ideal of living “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” – characteristics in short supply where Olaf was concerned.

Yet Paul proffers that ideal as a goal– that is, a target to earnestly shoot for because it’s consistent with “the call you have received.” Becoming a saint is a titanic struggle precisely because we do have so far to go. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor the feint of heart  – that is, those who are averse to trying again and again, who will pull their punches and shrink from the fight. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle,” the Catechism reminds us (CCC 2015), and what is required is what King Olaf evidently managed to pull off: Coming back repeatedly and inexorably, no matter how many failures and catastrophes, to Jesus, laying before him the meanest of loaves and fishes, and expecting conversion.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Communion Fast and Eucharistic Rapport

1 Jul

“Frequent Communion is not magic.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

Read more…


Snow White, Seven Monks, and a Fanciful Lesson in Humility

4 Mar

“It is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do marvels for us if only we did not despise them.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Read more…


Hallowed Ground: A Wintry Visit to a Fresh Grave

17 Feb

“For those who have surrendered themselves completely to God, all they are and do has power. Their lives are sermons.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

“It’s right here, along the fence,” Fred told me as he drew on a napkin. “The road comes around in front, but back near the fence there’s a gate that’s right by the spot.”

We were having lunch a couple weeks after Fred had said his final goodbyes to Debbie, his beloved wife, a stalwart mother and grandmother, and a true pillar of our local Catholic community. That sounds trite, but it’s absolutely true in this case. As Fred testified, so many people had been sharing with him anecdotes and testimonies about how Debbie had served them, quietly, humbly, almost invisibly, but substantially and always on the mark. I added my own testimony at lunch, telling Fred how important Debbie’s ministrations were to my young family way back when. At the time, we were new parents and had just moved to the area, and, frankly, we didn’t know how to cope. Debbie showed up to help us over the hump, and she did it with so much grace and good cheer. What’s more, she lent us a heaping portion of her confidence – “You can do this,” she silently communicated.

And we believed her. It was easy to believe Debbie.

Although I attended the funeral, I had to miss going to the graveside due to teaching duties, so I was glad Fred brought it up. As he drew his napkin map, it dawned on me that Debbie’s final resting place was in a large cemetery near my workplace. Until that moment, I’d no idea there was hallowed ground there, and I’d been driving past it for some 20 years. “I found out by accident myself,” Fred told me. “Before Debbie got sick, I was talking with Fr. Chris about his new parish assignment, and he mentioned that it came with a graveyard – and the expenses associated with its upkeep.” To help him out a bit, Fred purchased two plots side by side in anticipation of the inevitable, but the inevitable came too soon for Debbie.

Fred also mentioned that her grave marker was still being prepared, but that in time I’d be able to drop by to pay my respects since I was so close by. “Where’s the spot exactly?” I asked him – I didn’t want to wait for the marker. That’s when he started drawing on the napkin.

A couple days later, on my way home from work, I followed Fred’s napkin coordinates and located the drive that would take me into the Catholic part of that little cemetery. Sure enough, a small sign indicated that I was entering a consecrated area associated with Fr. Chris’s parish.

I guesstimated where to stop and, since there were no other visitors, I left my vehicle in the middle of the drive. It was cold, and there were deposits of snow along the tombstones and memorial markers. Piles of leaves from last fall peeked out from corners here and there; old, dried flowers randomly adorned the frozen grounds. I saw the gate along the fence, near an outbuilding that no doubt sheltered a backhoe and mowers. I tromped past areas encompassing several generations of Catholic families – weathered stones from the 1800s with flattened inscriptions side by side with crisply engraved markers of more recent vintage.

And there, just in front of the gate, was a slight depression in the ground covered by a collapsed display of shriveled flowers. Next to it was an undisturbed plot of the same size, and I deduced I was in the right place. “Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,” I prayed, “and let perpetual light shine upon her.” Birds were landing to peck at the grass clumps exposed by the melting snow, and there was a muffled din of nearby traffic. Otherwise it was silent and still and peaceful. I asked Debbie for her prayers.

As I returned to my car, I made a mental note to return soon. By then, the marker will be in place, but I’m glad that it wasn’t there for my first visit. Its absence, for me, corresponded with Debbie’s extraordinary vocation of selfless hiddenness. I trust that her new hiding place in Him will serve to expand her reach.

A version of this tribute appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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