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Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

24 Mar

“It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.”
~
Thomas Merton, OCSO

One of the challenges of getting to daily Mass is the illusion it creates of superior personal piety. Those of us who’ve adopted the practice, though, are under no such illusions. We don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy; we go to daily Mass because we know we’re not.

Saturday mornings, for me at least, readily demonstrate this reality.

For decades now, I’ve done my best to work daily Mass into my schedule. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Jim, my sponsor, in the months leading up to my reception into the Church. Retired now, Jim served as a public high school teacher in Chicago for many years, which was exacting, exhausting work. He also ran an Uptown soup kitchen twice a week – he still does! – serving hundreds of guests and involving the coordination of scores of volunteers.

Yet, somehow or other, he still gets to church nearly every day. It has been the lifeblood of his spirituality, a foundational discipline that had both fed and formed him. I could see firsthand how the practice was central to who Jim was and what he did: nourishing him as he taught and cared for his students; strengthening him as he managed the controlled chaos of soup kitchen week in and week out; buoying him in the ordinary battles of faith.

Jim would’ve laughed if you’d called him a saint, but his hunger for sanctity was nonetheless palpable. He not only shepherded me into Catholicism, but also became himself a de facto template for how to take it seriously, and central to that was daily Mass. I wanted to be like him, and so I followed his lead. Plus, it just made sense. If it was true, as I’d read in the Council documents, that the Mass was “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11), then why wouldn’t I want to participate in it as often as possible? Sunday Mass was obligatory, I knew, but daily Mass, while optional, was optimal.

Every morning, then, even before I could receive the Eucharist, I’d trudge up Kenmore Avenue to St. Thomas of Canterbury for early Mass. It was like liturgical remediation for this lifelong Evangelical, a daily immersion in the wonder of the Eucharistic drama that I’d been on the edges of for so long. And it increased my hunger for the sacramental communion that awaited me at the Easter Vigil – an augmenting of the long Lenten fast I was experiencing before I could finally feast on the Lord on Holy Saturday.

Yet, it was a different story on all those preceding Saturdays. Herein lies my tale.

Heavily Catholic communities like Chicago are golden for those who frequent daily liturgies. Parishes dot the map everywhere, and each has its own sacramental schedule. Most will have Masses in the morning seven days a week – some at 7:00, some at 8:00 or 8:30, and school parishes will even have them at 9:00 or 10. Then there are the downtown churches (and Catholic hospital chapels) which will frequently feature midday Masses to accommodate the lunchtime crowd. Some parishes will also offer early evening liturgies to catch folks on their way home from work – or to accommodate those whose early morning schedules make it impossible for them to get to daily Mass otherwise.

Hence, getting to weekday Mass is less a matter of schedule coordination than it is a matter of the will. That’s especially the case now that I live in South Bend, which, like Chicago, is very Catholic. But in addition to all the variables I listed above, we also have the University of Notre Dame in our backyard, and there are daily Masses all over campus, morning, noon, and night. It’s an embarrassment of Latin-rite riches such that, if I’m determined to get to Mass Monday through Friday, there’ll undoubtedly be one that fits into my agenda. I just have to get myself there.

But Saturdays?

Saturday Mass is complicated by the fact that it is liturgically encroached upon by Sunday. That is, the Catholic sabbath, liturgically speaking, begins Saturday evening, so there’s no such thing as a true Saturday evening weekday Mass. Plus, priests and pastors have obligations in preparation for the Sunday celebrations – not the least of which is the preparation of a Sunday homily – and it seems fitting to leave a bit of a liturgical breather between Saturday morning and Sunday vigil Masses. Thus, even Saturday midday Masses are generally cut from weekday schedules.

That leaves Saturday mornings alone for daily Mass habitués, and, in Chicago at least, that was complicated by our frequent Friday night reveries following soup kitchen, often into the wee hours of the morning. So it was that, despite my best intentions, I tended to skip Saturday morning Mass when I lived in the city, which disrupted my daily Mass routine in imitation of Jim. That disruption was perpetuated after I married Nancy and God started blessing us with babies. By the time the end of the week rolled around, getting up early for Saturday morning Mass was a taller order than ever, and over time I simply gave up on the idea.

Recently, however, I’ve made a liberating discovery. It’s been a boost to my spiritual equanimity, and I want to share it with you: The 8:15 a.m. Saturday Mass at St. Anthony’s.

You see, while I don’t have babies around the house any more, my aging frame nonetheless groans mightily when I attempt to rise at the crack of dawn on the weekend. Try as I might (and I’ve tried), I just can’t seem to make it regularly to the Saturday 7:00 at my own parish, or even any of the 8:00 opportunities around town. Maybe that’s sloth, pure and simple, but there’s something about St. Anthony’s 8:15 that helps me get past my inherent indolence.

Perhaps it’s the psychological assurance of that fifteen minutes past the top of the hour – a trick my brain plays on my will to push me beyond my lethargy. “Let’s see,” I’ll tell myself if I roll out of bed at 7:30 a.m. “I can still shower and dress and get there before the Gospel.” That sounds shamefully crass, I know, but it’s enough to get me moving, and I almost always get there in time for the opening rites.

What’s more, I’m not the only one. It seems like the Saturday 8:15 is a magnet for all manner of daily communicants, and not all of them are St. Anthony’s parishioners. Routinely, I spy numerous faces I recognize from other daily Mass hotspots around town – folks who’ve I’ve come to know by sight (if not by name) because we regularly cross paths at St. Patrick’s or the med center during the week. I’ve no idea if their reasons for being there on Saturday morning are similar to mine, but it’s comforting to see them all the same. They’re like my comrades on the spiritual battlefield, and meeting them at St. Anthony’s is like a weekly reunion of yawning saints in the making.

Which is, of course, the point. Daily Mass, like any spiritual discipline, isn’t an end in itself. “The ultimate end of all techniques,” writes Thomas Merton, “is charity and union with God.” If my efforts to get to Mass every day (including Saturdays) should begin to overshadow my commitments to family or interfere with my work – or if, what’s worse, I begin to pharisaically imagine myself somehow holy because of those efforts – then, by all means, I’d best set them aside. Nonetheless, as Merton writes, we all have to employ spiritual discipline of some kind, and it must “have a certain element of severity about it.” He goes on:

If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain definite times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

For me, participating in Mass every day is that one spiritual discipline I’m resolved to follow whenever possible, and the Saturday 8:15 has become its keystone. Even if you’re not ready to take up a daily Mass discipline yourself, why not join me at St. Anthony’s next weekend and check it out for yourself – maybe adopt it as part of your Lenten discipline. If you’re not in the South Bend area, see if you can find something comparable in your own area. Trust me, you’ll be among friends who won’t think twice about your yawns, and you’ll definitely encounter our Eucharistic Lord no matter what.

Who knows? You just might become a regular.
___________________________________

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Getting Un-Tilted this Advent

17 Dec

“For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground” (Bar 5.7).

Read more…

____________________________________

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.
_____________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Nailed: Outrage, Consolation, and a Helpless God

2 Apr

“If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.”
~
G.K. Chesterton

Early in the first semester of nursing school, I teach a unit on mobility and range of motion. We talk about body mechanics and ergonomics, how to ensure proper positioning for ailing patients as well as proper nursing postures to avoid back injuries. I tell the students that mobility is a continuum: It begins with limited locomotion in infancy, progresses to maximum free movement in youth and adulthood (with occasional interruptions due to injury or illness), and then finally declines with the entropy of natural aging. When we care for patients suffering altered mobility, our job as caregivers is to move them back along that continuum toward their maximum potential – to restore, that is, their fullest possible functioning with regards to voluntary movement.

As a part of that module, we also talk about restraints, which are the exact opposite of promoting mobility. Under certain circumstances – namely for patient safety and/or the safety of the practitioners – physical restraints are warranted, but they’re never easy to implement. People typically choose nursing as a profession because they’re caring and compassionate, and it goes against the grain for nurses (especially students) to impose anything that, on the surface, defies the Golden Rule. “I wouldn’t want to be restrained,” our thinking goes – a notion that also applies to giving shots and inserting loathsome tubes. Still, for the greater good of the patient, for the advancement of his healing and recovery, we are obliged to do such things. And, yes, we’re even obliged to physically confine our patients’ freedom of movement when it is required to bring about a greater good.

This Lent, I’ve been dwelling on the idea of restraints with reference to the crucifixion. Ordinarily we focus on the crucifixion’s Cross and its wood, especially on Good Friday – and rightly so. All through the New Testament, there’s a repeated emphasis on crosses – the Cross that our Lord carried and upon which he died; the crosses that we ourselves take up and bear as followers of the Lord, as imitators of him. “Apart from the cross,” insists St. Rose of Lima, “there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC 618). These days, however, I’m more fixated on the nails – in fact, “fixate” is an especially appropriate descriptor here, because that’s exactly what nails do. They fix something in place: God, in this case.

Of the three or four Holy Nails that affixed our incarnate God to the Cross, there are few intact specimens with any substantial provenance. St. Helen is said to have discovered the originals along with the True Cross in the fourth century, but then their history gets a bit murky after that. Tradition has it that the nails are still around, or at least facsimiles with some kind of associative pedigree. You can view and venerate them – all 30 or more – at various sites and shrines around the world.

Years ago, I myself had the privilege of seeing one of them at the Roman Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and it’s a Holy Nail with an especially solid claim on authenticity. “The true nail, kept at Rome, in the church of the Holy Cross, has been manifestly filed,” notes Fr. Alban Butler and his associates, “and is now without a point, as may be seen in all pictures of it.” It’s in a side chapel containing other Holy Land treasures, including Pilate’s tri-lingual placard that declared Jesus the King of the Jews, a couple thorns from the Crown, and chunks off the True Cross.

As a relatively new Catholic at the time of my visit, I was especially taken with these relics of the Passion, and I recollect even then being particularly impressed with the Holy Nail on display. The wood of the True Cross, I knew, was scattered around the world in innumerable reliquaries, but here was one of the actual bolts that captured God – that restrained him, not for his own good, but for mine. “The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end…has remained in human history the strongest argument,” writes Pope St. John Paul II. “If the agony of the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” That agony was a function of the nails; that salvific demonstration of divine love was facilitated by a fettered restriction to which he subjected himself.

Nowadays, the Holy Nails come to our attention primarily when we’re making the Way of the Cross and come to the Eleventh Station – “Jesus is nailed to the Cross.” However, the reflections associated with that Station are usually directed to the physical pain that accompanied the nailing – the pounding of those spikes into our Savior’s limbs, the gush of blood, the agony, the terror. “These barbarians fastened Him with nails; and then, raising the cross, left Him to die with anguish on this infamous gibbet,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his familiar version of The Way. Then, in his meditation on this terrible event, Liguori requests of the Lord that he “nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there to love Thee, and never quit Thee again.” It’s a laudable sentiment and a worthy spiritual goal, but recently the Nails have come to mean something even more to me.

I was sharing with Jim, my ersatz godfather, about a delicate and complex problem I’d been contending with. “I feel powerless to do anything,” I told him with a sad sigh, “helpless.”

Jim listened, paused, and then made a simple, wise suggestion. “Sounds like you should spend more time in church looking at Christ nailed to the Cross.”

The moment he said it, I knew he was right, and the crucifix in my parish church lent itself well to Jim’s proposal. The corpus is outsized, those holy hands clearly visible from the pews, and the black tacks pinning the divine wrists jut out in clear relief. The nails defy, they taunt, they dismiss all entreaties. One can readily imagine the bound Messiah feebly commending his mother to St. John and vice versa – what else could he do? No gesture of affection, no caress of his mother’s brow, none of that. The extremities of the Lord were held fast.

Yet it needn’t have been so – by Jesus’ own admission. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father,” he told his disciples, “and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” And yet he acquiesced and stayed on the Cross, allowing the nails to pin him fast. I’m reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lordly Aslan, a Christlike servant-king, submits to a humiliating, tortuous spectacle:

The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others…rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh.

As I gaze in silence at the nails on my parish’s imposing crucifix, and I contemplate how they briefly and mysteriously confined the Word made flesh, the principle of God’s creative force in the universe, I realize a peace with regards to my own intractable situation. I can do nothing, nothing – just like the One who bowed to a cross and its bondage. There’s only endurance and waiting, abandonment and hope, and I take comfort in the knowledge that he knows every dimension of my human pain, including the pain of limitation.

His immobility beckons me to imitate his acceptance and perseverance. He beckons; I hesitate. He beckons; I pray. He beckons….
_______________________

This reflection also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Required Reading

17 Jul

bible

They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)

I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.

A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.

It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.

To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.

At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.

But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):

Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

São_Miguel_das_Missões_(Brazil)At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.

There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.

What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:

The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:

Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.

Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.

There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.
_______________________________

Summer Spiritual Direction: Do Nothing

6 Jul

Wit_3

Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?
~ Professor E.M. Ashford in Wit

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A Glimpse of Mary’s Garden

22 Feb

1804

“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos

Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.

My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.

Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.

On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”

Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populateathos_bookd exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”

I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.

Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.

Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.

It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illathos_mapuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.

And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.

As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.

Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, agallipol3__jpg_633x270_crop_q85nd it was banned by the military censors.

Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.

That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”

And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a tathos_lochhinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)

As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.

And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:

Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.

Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!

Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!

It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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