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Love the Ones You’re With First

8 Sep

“It is not enough to say to my God I love you,
but my God, I love you here.”
~ Mother Teresa

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The Becket Moment: Fatherhood Pure & Simple

18 Jun

“Most dads accept that part of the job
is a willingness to be the unfashionable one.”
~ William McGurn

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A French Saint for Memorial Day

30 May

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

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My Finest Hour in New York

24 May

“Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day! Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!”
~ Walt Whitman

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The Witness of Chains: Of Apostolicity and Confinement

30 Oct


Next year, perhaps, God willing, we will again go to jail.
Dorothy Day

Oleksa Zarytsky, a Greek-Catholic priest, died in a Kazakhstan prison 53 years ago today. It was his second go-around behind bars on account of his dogged faith, and he’d already survived years of forced labor at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Still, the human body can only take so much, even when it’s a saint’s body, and Zarytsky succumbed to the beatings and mistreatment, earning a martyr’s crown on this day in 1963.

I was doing a bit of research on Fr. Oleksa, beatified by John Paul II in 2001, and I printed out some materials I found online. When I went to retrieve them from the shared printer at work, a colleague met me in the hall and handed them over. “I figured these were yours,” she said (I’m the token Catholic at our evangelical college), “and I hope you don’t mind my reading them. What an edifying story – he kept witnessing to the Gospel even at the risk of being returned to prison.”

The hallway was lined with students studying for their A&P lab, and you could tell they were listening in. I thanked my friend for delivering the documents, agreed with her assessment of Zarytsky’s story, and, mindful of the undergraduates listening in, I added, “Going to jail is certainly a mark of distinction for Christians.”

A different colleague, listening from his office, hastily added a qualifier (perhaps for the students): “If it’s for the right reasons!” – and who can argue with that? Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Christianity and imprisonment have a long and noble shared history. Religious liberty is rightly on our radar these days, both here at home and abroad, but there’s little question that Christians belong in jail.

At the very least, we belong there as visitors – it’s one of the corporal Works of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated in Matthew 25 – although we seem to belong there as occupants as well. Just this past Thursday, for example, we heard St. Paul in the first reading ask the Ephesians for their prayers, that he’d continue “to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains….” Those chains weren’t a metaphor, and the New Testament attests to Paul’s repeated imprisonments for refusing to compromise on the Gospel, not to mention the persecution of all Christians in those earliest years of The Way.

It’s a historical reality that was brought home for me when I had a chance to visit Rome long ago with my parents and sister. They were primarily interested in ancient Rome, but happily they were willing to indulge my penchant for the more Catholic side of the Eternal City.

Occasionally, our interests overlapped – as when we toured the Colosseum, so closely identified with Roman persecutions of the early church. Another site of mutual interest, and a highlight of the entire trip for all of us, was the little out-of-the-way 5th-century basilicamoses_by_michelangelo_jbu140 of San Pietro in Vincoli. In English, that’s “St. Peter in Chains,” but my mother preferred the fluidity of the Italian and she delighted in affecting an accent when enunciating it. I can still hear her voice – San Pietro in Vincoli – and see her satisfied grin as the words tumbled from her tongue.

Our family visit to San Pietro occurred long before the advent of GPS and cell phones, so it took us a while to wind our way through the back streets of the Esquiline and track it down. When we finally did so, we were hot and tired, and it was a relief to enter the dark, cool church. Fodor’s immediately directed us to Michelangelo’s Moses off to the right. The imposing sculpture, intended for a Vatican monument in honor of Pope Julius II, was waylaid at San Pietro’s for a variety of reasons, and now it’s a permanent fixture there.

However, it wasn’t Moses that captured our attention when we visited, but rather the chains. According to tradition, the Basilica’s high altar houses the fetters that held bound the Apostle Peter when he was arrested in Jerusalem – the very chains that “fell off his hands” when an angel appeared to effect his release (Acts 12.7). After receiving them as a gift, Pope Leo the Great sought to compare the Jerusalem relics to a second set of chains associated with St. Peter’s Mamertine confinement in Rome. When the Pontiff brought the separate shackles together, they miraculously fused, almost as if to ratify their historicity.

Regardless of their provenance, those chains in the impressive glass-encased reliquary at San Pietro make very concrete the biblical tales of saints being locked up for their faith and for spreading his Good News of salvation in Christ. For my mom, a devout evangelical, seeing those actual restrains was a confirming touchstone of belief – a Roman apostolic equivalent to visiting the Holy Land and walking where Jesus walked.

Of course, that kind of radical Christian witness didn’t cease with the apostolic age, which brings us back to Fr. Zarytsky, a very modern example of absolute abandonment to the Lord. Born in 1912, Oleksa had his sights set on becoming a priest from a very young age, and the triumph of Stalinist atheism in his native Ukraine didn’t dissuade him. He attended seminary in Lviv, received ordination in 1936, and set about his priestly duties with relish – catechizing, baptizing, hearing confessions, and, above all, celebrating Mass and giving the people their Eucharistic savior. Not surprisingly, the Communists caught up with him in time, and he was deported to a Kazakhstan labor camp in 1948.

oleksa-zaryckyjAfter his release in 1957, Fr. Oleksa rebuffed Soviet pressure to denounce the Pope and he redoubled his priestly efforts on behalf of the land’s beleaguered Catholic minority. Eventually he was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Kazakhstan and Siberia, and he became known as “The Tramp of God” on account of his tireless travels to bring the Gospel and the sacraments to his vast pastoral territory.

Arrested again in 1961, Zarytsky was returned to the prison where he’d meet his demise two years later. But even in jail, this dedicated priest would not abandon his apostolate. Aside from the comfort he brought to his fellow prisoners, he kept up a lively correspondence with those on the outside. “Who has God in his soul has it all,” Zarytsky wrote his brother by way of explanation. “This is my ray of light, the highest thought of my life.”

So that’s all inspiring, I know, but how relevant is it to those of us who’ll probably never face incarceration? Plenty, and it makes me think of my mother again. Confinement can take many forms, and, in her case, it was a physical confinement – a debilitating neurological illness that ultimately took her life. Even so, she bravely faced each day and sought to glorify her savior despite her significant limitations and ill health. She desperately prayed for healing, and she was honest with God about her anger when it wasn’t forthcoming, but she also never let up praying for her family, for her friends and acquaintances, and for the church at large – particularly for those Christians facing persecution in the far-flung corners of the world.

Hence the full meaning of St. Paul’s reference to his ambassadorship in chains: That, regardless of circumstances, regardless of whatever might hamper our human mobility or psychological freedom or even physical existence, we can nonetheless be conduits of grace and envoys of Christ wherever we find ourselves. “Have no anxiety about anything,” wrote the imprisoned St. Paul, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Fr. Zayrtsky could only concur. “Every day and every hour we have to offer everything to the suffering Jesus who carried his cross on Calvary to show us how to come to eternal life,” he advised from inside the labor camp. “Pray a lot. Prayer is our greatest strength.”

No manner of chain can keep us from that.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

On Fatherhood, Selective Service, and a Space for Nonviolence

28 Jul


“There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war—at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”
~ Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J.

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Of Scuppers, Grace, and Making Do

20 May


Dear Father, hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds,
and guard with tenderness small things that have no words.
~ Margaret Wise Brown

Who doesn’t love Goodnight Moon, right? Has there ever been a more gentle, rhythmic narrative? Its cadence is so lovely and lilting – so soothing to both reader and child.

GoodnightmoonOur board book edition wore out many years ago because it was a ready stand-by at bedtime and went through countless readings. Sandra Boynton was another favorite, of course, but her stuff was problematic at that time of day because her comic rhymes lent themselves so well to farcical voices and gestures, which in turn led to giggles and squiggles and kids not falling asleep.

Not so Goodnight Moon – the literary equivalent of an Ambien. It draws you into that neat, safe bedroom, and you’re fighting sleep like the tucked-in bunny, yet you know it’s a losing battle – for both of you. Each goodbye, each fond farewell to moon and mittens and everything else is one more shift in the direction of the inevitable: restful, peaceful – aah…

The pictures are hard to separate from the text, and it might be that you’ll recall the illustrator’s name, Clement Hurd, before you’d remember the author. Hurd’s bunnies and bedroom are hard to forget, but the text came from Margaret Wise Brown – know much about her? She was a highly successful editor and children’s book author, and she penned about 100 books, including another you might know: The Runaway Bunny, also illustrated by Clement Hurd.

Here’s one by Brown you might not know about: The Sailor Dog, published posthumously in 1953. It stars Scuppers, a dog with wanderlust who can’t contain his urge to return to the sea – the place of his shipboard birth. Who knows how he ended up landlocked on a farm – who cares? Readers are thrown into the midst of a quest, and we materialize alongside our determined oceanbound hero – a car overland or a submarine undersea will not do. In terms of adventure, it’s the wildness of the waves or nothing. “Scuppers was a sailor,” Brown writes. “He wanted to go to sea.”

And he manages to get there – taking possession of a shabby, but apparently seaworthy vessel, and launching into the deep. All goes well at first, but a nighttime storm leads to shipwreck, and Scuppers ends up on a deserted isle. He survives by his wits, and, inspired by a dream, makes the requisite repairs on his boat in order to continue his journey.

Eventually, he puts into port at an exotic locale, where he replenishes his supplies, replaces his tattered outfit with some new duds, and heads out to sea again. “I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog,” he sings in the end. “I can sail in a gale right over a whale under full sail in a fog.”

Delightful – and so comforting to young readers, and so encouraging. The hero, Scuppers, sets out on his own to follow his lights and his passions, and persists despite obstacles and misfortunes. Indeed, the obstacles and misfortunes make the tale – there wouldn’t be any “Sailor Dog” stoScuppers_(book)ry without the disruptions to Scupper’s plans.

It’s like the first reading at Mass today: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord,” writes St. James. “Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.” James tells us to motor forward, press on, keep going – like Job, enduring and making do. “You have seen the purpose of the Lord,” he goes on, “because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

What James describes, and what Scuppers ably demonstrates, is the cardinal virtue of fortitude, “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good,” in the words of the Catechism. “The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” (#1808). And like the other cardinal virtues, fortitude can be cultivated by everyone, including those with no faith – and, in fact, they prepare us for faith. “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort,” the Catechism teaches us. “They dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (#1804).

I believe that was true of Margaret Wise Brown herself. She did have a grandmother who was pious and “whose conversation was laced with quotations from Scripture,” in the words of biographer Leonard Marcus. Also, Grandma Naylor would see to it that Margaret and her siblings got to Sunday school whenever she came to visit. Other than that, Brown had little exposure to religion and apparently practiced none as an adult. Plus, her parents’ unhappy marriage made for a troubled childhood, and she herself suffered a string of tumultuous affairs and frustrated engagements before dying suddenly at the age of 42.

ashfordvivianYet Brown bravely faced down adversity throughout her life, and did so with considerable aplomb. She went to college over the objections of her father and excelled. Although she never had children of her own, Brown developed a keen insight into how they navigated the world, and through her books became the confidant of countless youngsters. It seems clear that Brown’s human efforts really were touchpoints for grace, and certainly grace manages to sidle through her writing – something highlighted in an especially poignant way in Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, particularly in its 2001 HBO iteration.

Emma Thompson stars as the ailing scholar Vivian Bearing, and Eileen Atkins plays Vivian’s former mentor, Professor Evelyn Ashford. Toward the end of the play, when Vivian is bereft of all hope, racked with tumor pain and spiritual distress, Ashford comes to visit her in the hospital.

Hoping to comfort her anguished former student, Ashford decides to read from The Runaway Bunny which she’d just purchased as a birthday gift for a nephew.

‘lf you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.’

‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman, and I will fish for you.’

As Ashford calmly reads, Vivian gains her composure and a measure of peace. “Look at that,” Professor Ashford comments. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.”

The soul of Margaret Wit Brown, the unsettled seeker behind that little allegory, would’ve been no exception.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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