Tag Archives: Augustine

Of Hotdogs, Baseball, and Going to Hell

16 Nov

For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.
~ Gaudium et Spes

Winter is setting in, so here’s a baseball story to conjure up a springlike vibe.

It’s about my dad, Phil, and a buddy of his – Morty was his name, I’m pretty sure. They’d grown up as neighborhood pals in East Orange, New Jersey, and one fine Friday morning they played hooky together and caught a Yankees game in New York. It was an excursion that affected my father deeply. I know this because I heard the story from him several times before he died.

The details are a bit fuzzy now, but here’s the gist.

Judging from my dad’s birth date, I’m guessing the escapade took place sometime in the late 1940s. Baseball was king back then, and the immortals were real people, not just faces on trading cards. For example, fans would’ve still been mourning the passing of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at that time (Gehrig! and Ruth!), and Joe DiMaggio himself would still be playing for the Yanks several more years – probably Morty and dad even got to see him.

Anyway, baseball was not only great entertainment for my father’s circle, but also a great leveler, bridging multiple cultural and social divides – like religion for instance. My dad came from solid Calvinist stock and a long line of serious Masons. Morty, on the other hand, was Irish, and Catholic to the core. They were both too young at the time to have adopted wholesale religious prejudice, I suppose, but it didn’t matter in any case: They were both nuts for baseball, and that was way more important to them than trifling ecclesial matters.

I’ve no recollection if there was something special going on that occasioned their conspiracy – a doubleheader, perhaps? – or if it was simply the anticipation of a forbidden pleasure. In any case, Phil and Morty ostensibly left their homes for school that morning, but then detoured to the train depot to catch a commuter into Penn Station. Once there, they took the subway up to the Bronx, and beelined their way through the crowds to the “House that Ruth Built.” A couple of Jersey boys buying tickets to a school-day ball game probably raised a couple eyebrows, but apparently nobody seriously challenged them. They made their way up to the cheap seats, and settled in to enjoy the main event.

My father’s family was dirt poor – grandpa worked the night shift at a beer bottling plant – but somehow my dad had scrounged up enough money for some eats on top of his train far83TD3OZA2MhkbfG.vDsgbge and the game ticket. The way dad described it, he and Morty took full advantage of their furtive outing: The Yankees down below working their magic on the field, and up in the stadium, the two truants living large and hailing vendors for hotdogs and Cracker Jack.

This is where my father would get real serious as he painted the scene for me: He and Morty, basking in the sun in their baseball paradise, focusing on the game, mustard-laden frankfurters at the ready. Morty takes a bite of his, then stops, mid-chew.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked.

“Oh, no,” came Morty’s reply, his mouth forming words around the hotdog chunk. “I forgot!”

“Forgot what?”

Morty, pale and wide-eyed, could hardly reply. “It’s Lent; it’s Friday,” he managed to croak out. “I’m going to hell.”

So, that’s the story pretty much; dad never mentioned what happened next – you know, like did Morty spit out the hotdog? Did he and dad stay to the end of the game? And how did Morty navigate the moral minefields he must’ve faced at home and church back in East Orange?

Nope, none of that. Whenever dad told the story, it always ended abruptly with his friend’s somber self-assessment – and no hedging either. It was never Morty saying, “I think I’m going to hell,” but always the bare declaration stated absolutely deadpan: “I’m going to hell.” It’s as if my father wanted to avoid detracting from Morty’s very real spiritual crisis at that crucial moment – as if, for dad, Morty’s words stood apart somehow and required no additional comment.

Fair enough – I respect my dad’s reticence, whatever its origin. Nonetheless, there’s some good fodder there for insights and reflection. Here’s three observations that I can’t pass up, along with a word about scrupulosity.

  1. Accidental transgressions are not really sins. Morty was off on that point, despite his evidently sound moral formation otherwise. If that bite of hotdog on a Lenten Friday really was accidental, then Morty wasn’t culpable in any way – it was an oversight, not an intentional flouting of the abstinence rule, and so hardly a sin. If anything, he was guilty of a wee bit of intemperance that day, and maybe some imprudence as well – probably it wasn’t a good idea to spend a Friday in Lent at the ballpark. And, of course, there’s the deception and lying that undoubtedly facilitated Morty and dad even being at Yankees stadium that school day. If there was any sin to speak of, it involved playing hooky in the first place rather than the snack.
  2. Hell is a good motivator. As every second-grader preparing for confession can tell you, there’s imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. The imperfect kind is when we’re sorry for our sins because we don’t want to go to hell, whereas perfect contrition is sorrow for sin out of love for God alone. Obviously, perfect contrition is preferred, but imperfect contrition is good enough – God will take what he can get from us. And Morty? We know he wasn’t in danger of frying for biting down on the illicit ballpark frank, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew was that he violated a serious Lenten discipline, and he feared the consequences. Hell, in other words, was a reality to Morty, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go there.
  3. Moral struggle can be an admirable badge of faith. The first time my father told me his hooky story he was still a Protestant, although he related it to me at least a couple times more after he became a Catholic. Morty had clearly made an impression on my dad that bygone spring day – his young chum who goofed and wrongfully feared for his soul. Yet, consider: No one was present to hold Morty accountable for his lapse – what did Morty care about what Phil the Protestant thought? Besides, they were already playing hookey together, and so dad wasn’t likely to snitch on his Catholic friend for the forbidden Lenten hotdog. No, Morty’s sincere moral anguish revealed his true character and the strength of his convictions that day. It was a demonstration of authentic faith. It was a moment of grace.

1024px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinAnd, finally, scrupulosity, the “habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial,” according to Fr. Hardon. Sure, Morty required some correction with regards to his grasp of sin, conscience, and the role of the will, but let’s not be hasty. These days, when there’s so much moral confusion, not to mention widespread rationalization for all kinds of evil, it’s probably not a bad idea to err on the scrupulous side of things – a perspective that St. Augustine seems to endorse:

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap.

And hotdogs? They can also add up, although one was enough for Morty – and, vicariously, for my dad as well. Thanks for your witness, Morty, wherever you are, and I pray that your conscience was long ago assuaged.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.


Of Steering Fluid, Grace, and Conversion

5 Jul

Faith comes not through pondering but through action.
We never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting.
~ Tito Colliander

1989-honda-accord-sedan-lx-pic-58829“It’s too hard to steer,” my teen daughter complained. “I can’t do it.”

Nobody likes my decrepit Honda. Among other things, it leaks power steering fluid like a sieve, and so it can be tough to muscle the wheel in traffic. I’ll splurge from time to time and fill up the reservoir. It’s a treat, and it works like magic: When the reservoir is full – voila! – smooth sailing! But after a couple days, the fluid starts to dwindle, and turning the steering wheel can be like arm-wrestling with a titan.

“Try releasing the brake and moving forward a bit,” I tell her. “The wheel will be a lot easier to turn.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. We’re already close by the curb, and there’s not a lot of room to maneuver, so it seems like we have to get the car heading in the right direction before we get moving, not after.

My daughter grimaces. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she says, but I insist. And, sure enough – lo and behold – it works! She releases the brake, the car starts to inch forward, and she directs the car away from the curb with little effort.

This is not a story about a dad being vindicated in his wise, fatherly counsel – although that would be nice. It’s also not a story about why that steering trick works. I imagine it has something to do with force and torque and complicated formulae, but I’m no physicist.

Instead, my Honda’s power steering problem got me thinking about grace and conversion. Here’s why.

In our day-to-day lives, we know that we have to get a move on or nothing will get done – an obvious notion, but so painful to learn when we’re first on our own. Laundry piling up? Sink clogged with dirty dishes? Empty fridge? Second (and third) notices from creditors? Once mom and dad aren’t around to handle such matters, we discover real quick that not acting – acts of omission, in other words – have very real consequences, and so we develop habits of action.

This goes for the workaday world as well, beginning with obtaining a job in the first place. Normally, employment doesn’t fall in our laps – we have to get out there and search out who’s hiring, groom ourselves and our résumés appropriately, and take the risk of putting in an application. I say “risk,” of course, because there’s no guarantee that the job will pan out. Still, to sit back and try another video round of zombie-killing will probably not lead to an income. Sooner or later we have to hit the bricks to find an occupation.

But what of the spiritual life? What of conversion and holiness? It’s all grace, right? We’re hypersensitive, we Catholics, to the charge of “works righteousness” – that we’re somehow “earning” our salvation through our good deeds and pious acts – and so we might be extra cautious about claiming any credit for our efforts. Much safer, we might be tempted to think, to scrub our role altogether. God not only gets top billing in that case, but he becomes a one-man-show.

That’s not exactly how it works though – and it might let us off the hook inordinately with regards to our own responsibilities. St. Paul, after all, speaks of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), implying that we do have a role to play and we’d better take it pretty seriously.

This was a big problem for me in my Presbyterian youth. If all faith and conversion was through God’s grace alone, and we had none at all to begin with (as I was taught), then it was just God’s whimsy as to who’d be saved and who’d be damned. Reformed apologists might argue with my simplistic characterization of Calvinist doctrine, but it really did seem like double-predestination – God’john-wesley-1wes planning ahead for the eternal destination of all the souls he created, whether to heaven or to hell – was an inevitable and unenviable conclusion. If that was Christianity’s God, then I was ready to bolt.

Enter John Wesley. Although I was raised a Calvinist, I ended up at a Methodist college and studied theology there. Naturally, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, figured prominently in my studies, and it was through him that I encountered the idea of prevenient grace. This was a common form of grace that a loving God gave to all that all might be saved. Thus, Wesley taught that everyone shared in the very life of God in a tentative way as a preparation for and prompting toward the fullness of that sharing in sanctifying grace.

In one of his most lucid treatments of this idea, Wesley unpacks St. Paul’s words about working out our own salvation and describes a grace that “prevenes” (precedes) the grace that actually saves us. Prevenient grace, according to Wesley, includes…

the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.

That made sense to me! If indeed “God so loved the world,” as St. John asserts, and God gave us Jesus that “whoever believes in him” should be saved, then it must be possible. Prevenient grace fit the puzzle pieces together: We’re still saved by grace alone, but everybody is born with a measure to start off with.

Imagine my surprise years later when I discovered that this is a Catholic doctrine, including the language. The Council of Trent took up the idea in the sixteenth century, but the Council of Orange dealt with it a thousand years before that. Reaching back even further, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine from the fifth century on the subject:

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.”

Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinCatholics don’t generally call it prevenient grace now, and instead lump it in with other forms of actual grace – the grace we receive to act, as opposed to sanctifying grace which saves. But no matter the terminology, the idea is the same: God gives us all that we need to be saved. Grace surrounds us and infuses us even before we know we desire heaven. I like the way St. Catherine of Siena put it: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” We just have to do our part.

So, back to my car’s steering problems.

The simple solution, of course, would be to replace the steering fluid reservoir, but my mechanic, Gary, assures me that it wouldn’t be cost-effective. “You’ll probably just have to get used to driving it without the fluid,” Gary said. So be it. Like I said, occasionally I’ll go wild and top off the reservoir, but it seems so indulgent. For the next day or two, driving seems downright decadent, and so I’m thinking I might purchase a case of Honda power steering fluid for the daughter when she gets her license. She can drive the Accord without it – and even a case won’t last too long, I know – but, at least for a while, it’ll make her driving experience so much easier.

For our spiritual journeys, too, we have all we need to get to our final destination. Prevenient grace gets us going; sanctifying grace fills us with God’s own life; actual graces keep us on the path toward home. What we don’t always have is the fluidity of emotions that we’d like to have along the way – those positive feelings and “movements of the sensitive appetite,” as the Catechism calls them, that give us warm fuzzies in our prayer and spiritual experiences.

Not to worry. We can still steer. The fluidity comes and goes, we have to remember, and we are grateful for it. But when it’s not there, and it seems like our steering is stuck? Release the brake, get moving, and the forward motion will facilitate maneuvering the soul toward heaven again. “The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man” (CCC 2002). We inch forward with little direction – and often with no warm feelings either – and he grabs us and pulls us along.

Counterintuitive, I know, but – lo and behold – it works! It’s as if he designed it that way.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Holy Gift of Killing Time

13 Apr

And tell me, do you play with your children? Do you waste time with your children?
~ Pope Francis

moment_in_time_sandcastle_waveLike an elaborate sand castle in the rain, my plans for a retreat day with my teenage son eroded before my very eyes.

We had tentatively talked about joining some other fathers and sons on a structured retreat in Chicago, but the logistics fell through when the weekend schedule started getting crowded – my son, Crispin, committed to serving Mass Saturday morning and then on to a birthday party around dinner, plus my wife and I had an awards banquet to attend that evening. So, instead of a full-blown retreat experience, I suggested an afternoon trip down to Ancilla College, just to walk the grounds together and visit the beautiful chapel there.

Nope, that fell through as well. Chores, errands, one thing and another, and the day started slipping away. Finally, in a desperate gambit to salvage at least part of the original plan, I asked my son if we could spend an hour or so at The Mount before I dropped him off at the party. Cris agreed.

We got over there, made our way to the Adoration chapel, and took to our knees for a drowsy Rosary. Then, an exploration of the Sisters’ collection of relics and reliquaries, a brief stroll down to the Grotto and back, and our “retreat” was complete. On to the birthday party.convent_9

OK, so not exactly the structured, productive day of prayer and reflection that I had hoped for. In fact, to be honest, it was more like killing time at a convent. Yup, killing time…time was killed. Time was laid waste and poured out like a libation, like a sacrifice on the altar of our busy schedules and pressing priorities. I killed my time for Cris, he killed his time for me, and both of us killed time together before God.

And so, wonder of wonders, our makeshift retreat was a resounding success, notwithstanding the thwarted agenda – or perhaps precisely because of the thwarted agenda. Laus Deo!

How so? Yes, our time together might’ve been more fruitful had we been able to engage in organized spiritual exercises – and that can be a goal for future retreat days. But there was a priceless exchange that afternoon, a mutual sacrifice of time that will reverberate throughout our lives in subtle, perhaps even invisible ways.

We all know that time is a limited commodity – that we’re all allotted only so much during our ever-so-brief human sojourn – so killed time is especially precious. I’m convinced that’s the reason my youngest children prefer to go to the pool or the park with me – it’s not the same if I just drop them off to play with each other. It’s not that I’m such a great playmate, but I am their dad and they are particularly interested in my time, whether I play with them or not. It’s also why they look forward to an occasional round of tickle mwimpy1onster at night, and why they clamor for bedtime stories – even if it’s the same stories over and over and over again.

Like my Nick and the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. That passage where Gregory is tricked by his brother into getting ready for school in the middle of a summer night? I’ve only read that to Nick, oh, maybe 150 times, and we’ll probably read it many times more. But so what? He knows I think it’s funny, we both laugh (although, admittedly, not as hard as the first 20 times), and he banks on it buying us five minutes of precious time that we can kill with each other.

Speaking of banks, the cinematic Mr. Banks learns the very same lesson by the end of Mary Poppins (1964). You know the scene: Banks sees the light, quits his all-consuming job, and joins his two children for some kite flying in the park. It all turns out alright in the end, Hollywood style, but even so, the message is a good one – and true. The kids weren’t interested in money and position and prestige. They were interested in their father, and they wanted his time.lgfak01

“The free gift of a parent’s time is so important,” Pope Francis has instructed us, and that’s the way it should be with our prayer. God has given us an example – he has freely and completely given himself to us – and all he asks is that we do our best in imitating him. After all, he doesn’t need our help. He certainly doesn’t ask for our agendas and plans, nor even our companionship or attentions. What he craves, rather, is our very selves, and we satisfy that craving most readily and directly when we freely offer him our time – when we kill our time as a sacrifice borne of love.

Certainly it’s true that prayer can also have a more practical, intercessory dimension – Our Lord did teach us to ask for our “daily bread” – but even then, it’s primarily about relationship because our requests manifest our dependence. The Catechism instructs us that “the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him,” and it’s a habit that necessarily entails, first of all, giving up time. Again, the Catechism:

Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment…. But we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it.

Thankfully the Church presents us with a template for this perpetual sacrifice of time in the Liturgy of the Hours – also known as the Divine Office, which includes Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer and the like. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours speaks of this organized practice of praying through Scripture as a “Consecration of Time,” and it goes on to declare that the purpose “is to sanctify the day and the whole range of human activity” (10).

“Through him (Jesus) let us offer to God an unceasing sacrifice of praise” (Heb 15:15)…. By ancient Christian tradition what distinguishes the liturgy of the hours from other liturgical services is that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of the day and the night (10).

What is said of the Liturgy of the Hours goes for all other forms of prayer and piety as well – starting with the Mass as the perfect prayer, of course, but also practices like the Rosary and Lectio Divina, as well as things as simple as brief stopovers in church to visit the Blessed Sacrament or pausing to kiss a scapulaAugustine_and_donatistsr or a crucifix in the rush of the day.

Regardless of the prayer or devotional practice, it’s the intentional surrender of time that makes it a true sacrifice and a free gift. What’s more, we don’t even have to do it all that well for it to count for something. Promise! We have none other than St. Augustine, a Latin church father and doctor of the church, to vouch for us on this point.

To wit: In his Confessions, Augustine devoted an entire book to his ruminations on time, and at one point he had this to say:

But because Thy loving-kindness is better than all lives, behold, my life is but a distraction…. I have been severed amid times, whose order I know not; and my thoughts, even the inmost bowels of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultuous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.

His life, his time, his actions and thoughts and inner dispositions are a mess: Help! Augustine is transparent in revealing how divided his appetites and desires are, and he recognizes that he will have no peace until all of them are united in Christ.

It’s just that unity – what St. Benedict called a “harmony” of mind and voice – that eluded Augustine, like most of us I imagine. Nevertheless, the Church insists that we aspire to it, offering “praise and petition to God with the same mind and heart as the divine Redeemer when he prayed” (19). So what to do?

Here again, Augustine comes to our aid – he who battled the Donatists and stood firm in defending the efficacy of the Sacraments administered by sinful priests. For St. Augustine knew well that it wasn’t in the perfection of our efforts that our prayers were acceptable, but rather in the perfection of the One who prays through us whenever we make the slightest turn toward him.

God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members…. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us (7).

What God wants is our time, not our lofty thoughts or self-absorbed machinations. Once we abandon our time to him – gty_father_son_playing_jef_110617_wghowever briefly – he is at liberty to follow his whims and his will, and he becomes truly our Father. Indeed, it’s as if we’ve come full circle, for like my children and I sharing time for stories and games, our relinquishing of schedules and agendas allows God to treat us as the children we are…and we get to join him in play.

It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground (Chesterton).


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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