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Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

23 Oct

“We can’t hope to know others as we should like to, but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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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.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Liturgical Fiscal Year: A Thought Experiment

20 Aug

Blessed are you poor (Lk 6.20).

Earlier this month, I heard Rush Limbaugh make reference to some kind of economic forecasting related to Apple’s market value. It was a bit confusing, but I gather the corporation is doing quite well, and it was making predictions related to its fourth-quarter earnings – although we’d call them “third-quarter” earnings. “Apple is like the United States,” Rush explained. “Their fiscal year begins October 1, so their fourth quarter is the September quarter.”

“So New Year’s Day for the U.S. Government and some big corporations is October 1 – the feast of the Little Flower,” I thought to myself. “What if everybody’s new year started with her feast?”

What indeed.

As it is, our secular new year begins with an even more significant and propitious feast on January 1: The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. It marks the last day of the Christmas Octave, and it focuses our attention on Mary’s unique role in our salvation, but also her role as our heavenly mother and advocate. Moreover, since 1968, our Popes have designated January 1 as the World Day of Peace. We’re asked to offer special prayers that day for an end to war and violence, and to reflect on how we can all help bring that about.

But let’s say, just as a thought experiment, that the Church decided to align its fiscal timetable with the timetables of the world’s mightiest powers, both political and corporate. That is, what if the Church’s financial calendar started in October instead of January? What lessons could we learn from such a shift, especially if the underlying liturgical calendar was left intact.

Considering the wealth of feasts in the first week of October, I’d say there’d be plenty to chew on – particularly with regards to how differently the Church views money matters relative to how the world views them.

Anyway, with regards to my little experiment, here’s what I came up with.

  • October 1 (Fiscal New Year): St. Thérèse of Lisieux. What better saint to ring in the new financial year than this youthful Carmelite and Doctor of the Church. Her whole life was dedicated to self-denial, hiddenness, and her Little Way – the total opposite of the world’s obsession with consumption, self-aggrandizement, and bigger-is-better. As E.F. Schumacher said, and St. Thérèse lived, “small is beautiful,” and we’d do well to imitate her example according to our abilities and state of life.
  • October 2: Guardian Angels. The second day of our Catholic fiscal new year coincides with our annual reminder that we each have a spiritual being assigned to us by God – and that on Jesus’ own authority (Mt 18.10). As with other angels, our guardian angels are God’s messengers, but they also can act on our behalf, protect us, and promote our welfare. In other words, their whole purpose is to serve us – to serve others, not themselves. Would that we held a similar perspective with regards to our wealth, and that we strove to increase our selflessness in our generosity and giving.
  • October 4: St. Francis of Assisi. Here’s the showstopper for my Catholic fiscal new year: The patron saint of voluntary poverty. His rejection of worldly wealth and prestige in exchange for temporal deprivation and derision was considered madness in his day, but he sparked a revolution of love. Not everyone is called to live his radical life of downward mobility – someone has to pay the bills, after all, and have enough left over to pass along to those who beg alms – but his appearance at the start of our imagined financial calendar would set a spiritually profitable tone for the whole year.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll have to skip over other relevant saints in that first week of October – like Bl. Francis Seelos, a Redemptorist missionary to the U.S., on October 5, or the founder of the Carthusians, St. Bruno, on October 6. Besides, we don’t want to stretch this idea too far.

However, there is one more coincidental date that makes this thought experiment especially timely now. Our next would-be fiscal new year’s day, October 1, 2017, will fall on a Sunday – Respect Life Sunday, in fact. It’s a fortuitous confluence of observances that comes every seven years or so, and if it were to also mark financial day #1, think of the unmistakable message if would transmit regarding what the Church truly holds dear: not market share or stock price, balanced books or cash reserves, but the intrinsic and absolute value of every human life.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Harbors, Harbingers, and Kids at Mass

6 Aug

“Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me” (Mt 19.14).

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Stuck on the Way: The Simon-Veronica Loop

16 Jul

“For a moment, a vision more wonderful than that of Tabor is granted to the woman whose compassion drove her to discover Christ in a suffering man.”
~ Caryll Houselander

Where do you sit in church? Do you automatically gravitate to a region time and again, maybe even a particular pew?

Everybody does it, it seems – at least that’s what I hear from priests. Pastors know where their parishioners normally sit and what Sunday Mass they normally attend, and they take note if they’re missing – or if their perched in an unexpected location.

Then there’s us: Inveterate congregational nomads. Side aisle, center aisle, Mary’s side, Joseph’s side – who knows where the Beckers will end up?

These days, however, on those rare occasions when we have a quorum attending Mass together (hard to do when you have older teens who can drive themselves), we usually end up on St. Joseph’s side of the church near the cry room. I’m not sure why – we haven’t had a wailing baby for much too long – but I’m happy to defer to familial consensus.

But when I’m on my own? For daily Mass? I prefer Mary’s side between Simon and Veronica – between, that is, the fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. It’s a physical space where I feel spiritually at home, an intervening territory that pretty much epitomizes the state of my soul most the time.

Simon, you’ll recall, was the country bumpkin that the Roman soldiers grabbed from the crowd to shoulder Jesus’ hefty burden. The Gospel accounts indicate that he didn’t volunteer, and the burden was reassigned to Simon only after the Lord, weakened by beatings, had stumbled under its weight.

Even so, Simon’s act, whether willing or not, is a striking metaphor for what it means to become a Christian, to be a Christian: We take up the Cross by taking up our own crosses, whatever they may be. Jesus told us as much himself – it’s right there in Gospels for all to read – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that lived Christianity is associated with suffering and dying: Dying to self, dying to our pride and niggling selfishness, dying in ways we resent and resist. Dying, dying, dying, over and over again, way before we have to face biological death.

So that’s our starting place as believers – “Simon helps carry the cross,” the Fifth Station. A short stroll and a genuflection brings us to the Sixth, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” and we’re confronted with an advanced stage of discipleship. Contrary to Simon, a drafted Christ-imitator, Veronica represents a willing, even eager apprentice. She lunges through the crowd, defying the Roman guards and their scourges, and applies a towel to the bloody face of love.

It’s a desperate spectacle of compassion and affection, a moment of intimate connection between savior and saved, that leads to an unexpected result: A transfer of divine visage from Christ to cloth. The Lord’s face grew bloody again soon enough, but Veronica’s courageous compassion earned her a permanent and precious memento.

Unlike Simon the Cyrene, however, Veronica has no biblical pedigree. “As we read the Gospel account,” writes Frank Sheed, “we miss one familiar figure – for Veronica was not to arrive for a good many centuries yet!” It’s true that her deed of compassion was well established in the Stations by about the 14th century, and that the traditions associated with a wondrous transfer of Jesus’ battered likeness to a towel go back much further. In fact, the towel itself, its sacred portrait faded into obscurity, is still preserved in the Vatican as a holy relic.

But did Veronica even exist? Her name could be seen as a clever amalgam of the Latin vera for “true” and the Greek icon for “image,” which itself seems to have been originally applied to the relic itself. It could well be that the “veronica” cloth paved the way for the Veronica character of the Sixth Station; that she was a pious invention which dovetailed nicely with an instructive narrative exhortation. “The name Veronica is to be found in none of the early martyrologies,” writes P.K. Meagher, “nor does it appear in the present Roman Marytrology in connection with this legendary woman.” St. Charles Borromeo himself yanked liturgical honors associated with her story from the Milanese Ambrosian Rite.

Still, legend or no, Veronica is right up there on the wall of my church – as she is in your church, in virtually all Catholic churches and chapels. “Consider the compassion of the holy woman, Veronica,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his classic Way of the Cross. “Seeing Jesus in such distress…she presented Him with her veil.” Maybe there was no first-century Veronica; maybe the Sixth Station didn’t go down exactly like we recite it every Friday during Lent. Her legacy lingers intact nonetheless, and for me it endures as a singular spiritual goal.

For as much as I identify with the unwilling (or at least balking) Simon, my desire is to be a rash Veronica who assimilates the very likeness of Christ – no fear, no hesitation. It’s as if I’m drawn to that void stretching from the fifth to the sixth Station. It’s like a taut string on a steel guitar, and I get to be the empty bottle sliding fret to fret – from a religiosity of obligation to occasional high notes of energetic self-surrender, and back down again, over and over and over. No picking; no grand chords; no Christopher Parkening lightly skipping through Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Just a sloppy slide, a wavering rhythm, a warbling tune.

And if that image suggests a corny country-western song or a downer Memphis blues, so be it. Either (or both) could appropriately accompany my perpetual interior languor – “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24)

Which, of course, is why I keep showing up for daily Mass. I’m confident that its Music will continue to draw me forward – regardless of where I sit.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Creeds, Conversion, and Cribbing at Mass

11 Jun

“I’m not asked on a Sunday morning,
‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’”
~ Jaroslav Pelikan

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Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

14 Apr

“God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
~ from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

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