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Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

10 Feb

“Be content that you are not yet a saint…. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Of Driving Lessons, Fatherhood, and the Moral Life

29 Jan

“Conversion to Christ does not
automatically make us virtuous.”
~ Frank Sheed

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Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

St. Sebastian – Pray for Us!

18 Jan

If you have (or ever have had) children in Catholic schools around here, chances are good that they played sports at some point. And if that’s the case, then the chances are even better that you know the Inter-City Catholic League (ICCL) Athlete’s Prayer by heart. It’s recited before every Catholic school match-up, and it ends with this enthusiastic invocation: “Saint Sebastian, pray for us!”

Why St. Sebastian? If you didn’t already know, your student-athletes would’ve filled you in long ago: Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes, of course!

We know very little about the real St. Sebastian except that he was a martyr and that he was buried in the Roman catacombs. St. Ambrose, the 4th- century bishop of Milan, confidently wrote that Sebastian originally hailed from his city and that he perished under Emperor Diocletian, but all other stories about Sebastian date from the 5th century, and, while edifying, are entirely fictitious. Fictitious as well are the many depictions of a muscular St. Sebastian riddled with arrows – a popular Renaissance artistic theme.

What’s not fictitious is the value of St. Sebastian’s intercession – for safety, for sportsmanlike conduct, for maximum effort. Plus, as a martyr, Sebastian is certainly an excellent role model for our student-athletes (and all of us), regardless of the actual details of his story. “Every Christian is called to become a strong athlete of Christ,” Pope St. John Paul II observed, “that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel” – just like the real St. Sebastian. And Pope John Paul, himself no stranger to athletics, followed up his observation with some advice: “To succeed in this, he must persevere in prayer, be trained in virtue and follow the divine Master in everything.”

Those are the rules of the Christian game, according to the Holy Father. Moreover, as St. Paul insisted, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim 2.5).

This is the first weekend of Ordinary Time, and it coincides with the feast of St. Sebastian (January 20). He’s an ideal companion for us in our ordinary routines, day in and day out, as we follow the rules, strive for holiness, and seek the crown of heavenly glory.

Game on.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana.

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

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