Tag Archives: catholic

Five Teens for Five Months

7 Dec

One Thousand Words a Week

five teens

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply.
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

Were you a history major?Me, too.

Remember much? Me neither.

One thing I’ll never forget though: 11/11 at 11 a.m. That memorable string of elevens marked the end of the First World War and the implementation of the 1918 armistice – hallelujah! Of course, a 1911 armistice would have provided greater numerical congruity, but you can’t have everything.

Anyway, our family marked its own imperfect string of matching numbers this past Monday – fives in our case. True, it was 12/1, and, yes, the year is 2014, but at 5:00 p.m. that day, my fifth child turned 13, and that means that we’ll have five teenagers for five months – count ’em, FIVE!

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Philippine Epiphanies

14 Sep

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.
~ G.W. Kitch­in and M.R. New­bolt

“The BBC,” the voice-over asserted. “The world’s radio station.”

It was a spot on “All Things Considered” the other day – our local NPR station carries the BBC daily from midnight until 5 a.m. – and it brought on a flood of memories.

I used to listen to those broadcasts driving home after evening shifts as a new nurse, but I’d already developed an affection for the BBC decades before while in the Philippines as an intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Jeff, another intern, and I were assigned to a mission up in Mountain Province – literally out in the “boondocks” (a Filipino word) – and the radio was our one routine connection to the outside world, a kind of electronic comfort food.

In the late evenings, after the dishes were done and the chores complete, the missionaries would fire up their shortwave radio, and we’d all gather round to listen in. It was the summer of “Ebony and Ivory,” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, as well as John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” – constants on Voice of America every time we tuned in. The BBC was always meatier fare, and Carabao in rice field, near Baler, Aurora, Luzon, Philippineswe’d look forward to updates about the Falklands conflict as well as other international happenings, all while swatting mosquitos, shooing away geckos, and cooling ourselves with jury-rigged fans.

What an eye-opener that summer was – showering in swimsuits under drenching rain, enjoying strong, fresh coffee near the very tree that produced it, carabaos wandering freely about outside our nipa hut day and night.

And the people, of course. Filipinos are known the world over for their cheerfulness and hospitality, and we experienced it firsthand. The villagers could always scrape up a meal for Jeff and me when we came around visiting – even if it meant, as it did on one occasion, serving rice and “wild bird” (which turned out to be bat meat). The local folks were often initially shy in the presence of us Westerners, but once that stage was passed, they loved to hear about our lives back in the States – especially snow. It seemed like the Filipinos in our mission area could never hear enough about snow, and the postcard of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains I’d brought along from home was a huge hit.

The welcome and embrace of the Filipino people was the best part of that summer intern experience, but the actual missionary endeavors we’d come to further turned out to be quite troubling – at least for me. After the Wycliffe organization had accepted my internship application, I set about learning as much as I could about the land I’d be traveling to and the people I’d be evangelizing. I dug into the history of the Philippines, as well as the current political tensions during those waning days of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign. I also researched the cultural and religious character of the multi-island nation, with its minority Muslim population in the south and the rest overwhelmingly Catholic.

Wait, Catholic? Weren’t they already, well, kinda’ Christian already? Why was I going all the way across the ocean to bring the Gospel to people who already knew it quite well?

I kept these unsettling thoughts to myself as I completed Wycliffe’s orientation at their Texas Summer Institute of Linguistics early in the summer, and continued to quietly harbor them as I traveled with my fellow interns overseas. It never occurred to me to share them with anybody associated with the trip – why invite scrutiny? I figured at some point I’d just “get” it, and the perplexing dimensions of our journey – a handful of zealous, young Christians flying to a country full of Christians to teach them about Christianity – would dissipate and fade away.

But it didn’t. In fact, when I got to Manila, and before we were shipped up to our rural mission placement, the question became all the more disturbing. I encountered evident faith and piety at every turn in that crowded city, and I witnessed a passion for Jesus and his Blessed Mother that made my cautious evangelical sensibilities seem anemic by comparison.

Further investigation was clearly warranted, but I had to act fast. Our days in Manila were few, and they revolved around jet-lag recovery, a few touristy jaunts, and more orientation. So I got up my courage and approached the Wycliffe staffer assigned to our team.Manila_Cathedral_Facade

“About worship on Sunday…,” I tossed out vaguely.

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked.

“The Cathedral,” I replied, then adding cautiously, “I’d like to find out more about the local culture.”

She was surprised by the suggestion, but she agreed to accompany me there. The other interns turned down the offer to join us, choosing instead to worship with the missionaries at the compound. I didn’t mind. It was already a quixotic quest, and having to share it with the Wycliffe staffer was going to be awkward enough.

After a jeepney ride or two, we got to Manila Cathedral, and nothing could have prepared me for the cross-cultural jolt I received there. Even if I’d arrived in the Philippines a lifelong, born and bred Catholic, I would’ve still gaped at the Cathedral scene: People coming and going indiscriminately, in and out of pews, in and out of the building; worshippers praying at side altars, lighting candles and saying rosaries; folks talking and laughing and wrangling children inside the church, men (mainly) talking (and smoking) outside the church. All of that while the priest and his retinue were praying the Mass in the clouds of incense up front around an elevated altar.

I was captivated.

What’s more, I was convinced. The practices and postures were foreign to me as an evangelical Protestant, and the Sabbatarian informality made me very uncomfortable, but I knew these people were already Christians, and I had very little to offer them. Moreover, I suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that I’d encounter the same level of passion and piety in the mission area to which I was being sent to evangelize. Yet, even then, I was yearning to receive evangelization myself from those people, to know Jesus as familiarly as they did, to know his mom and his friends, to feel at home in his house. It was all backwards, and the summer ended up a disaster as far as the internship was concerned.

It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the experience planted seeds – seeds of curiosity and longing that, in time, led to my reception into the Catholic Church. Plus, it was an object lesson in an organic missiology that seemed revolutionary to an impressionable Protestant missionary intern at the time – the idea that drawing others to Christ could be accomplished simply by living out the faith, regardless of whether the Gospel was verbally proclaimed or not. Avant-garde, to be sure, and radically effective as well.

It was the missiology at work in the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day – to proclaim Jesus by being Jesus. It’s the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association today. And it was Tamanrassetthe guiding light of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Saharan desert who converted no one, but whose remarkable life of heroic witness continues to inspire so many today. Of his missionary approach, he wrote:

In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. God continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the holy Eucharist. So we too must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way.

This is precisely what the Church teaches us with regards to how the Church goes about doing missionary work. Here’s the Catechism’s summary of that teaching in its section on Missionary paths:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience.

Yes, it requires patience, but not like we might think. It’s not the patient waiting for the heathen to respond positively to our Gospel proclamation, but rather the patient perseverance required in our own personal conversions. Here’s Bl. Charles again:

Everything about us, all that we are, should ‘proclaim the Gospel from the housetops’. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

In that sense, we’re to be like mini-BBCs, don’t you think? Broadcasting Jesus wherever we go – around the world to the boondocks of the Philippines, if we’re so called, but even more importantly, right here at home.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Nativity Sets, Mary Worship, and Missions

15 Dec

Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
~ William Wordsworth, “The Virgin

During Advent, every Christian is a Mary-worshiper.

processionMary1024Naah, just joshing you. Not even Catholics worship Mary, despite appearances to the contrary. We pay her tribute and honor her – even reverence (dulia) her in a singular, intense manner (hyperdulia). But worship (latria)? That’s reserved for the Persons of the Trinity alone.

Our hyperdulia can get pretty darn close to latria I suppose – Rosaries and icons and processions and statues, et cetera  – and it’s understandable that outsiders might get confused.

Let’s set the record straight then. Mary is not God – she was a human being. Immaculately Conceived, to be sure, but a human being in need of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as much as anybody else.

That being said, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) did bestow on her the title Theotokos – mother of God. It was a way of combating Christological heresy, but also a way of putting into words what the whole Church had long embraced and celebrated. As the mother of the incarnate God, Mary shares His flesh – in fact, it could be rightly said that He shares hers. She played a unique role in salvation history, she continues to play a role in the life of the Church today, and we are devoted to her as any child ought to be devoted to his earthly mother.

Can that devotion go off the rails? Perhaps. Chesterton admitted as much when he wrote this of Mary:

If Catholics had been left to their private judgment, to their personal religious experience, to their sense of the essential spirit of Christ and Christianity, to any of the liberal or latitudinarian tests of truth, they would long ago have exalted our Lady to a height of superhuman supremacy and splendour that might really have imperilled the pure monotheism in the core of the creed. Over whole tracts of popular opinion she might have been a goddess more universal than Isis.

Still, it’s a truism that virtually all Christians, Catholic and otherwise, honor Mary in their homes this time of year, even going so far as setting up a statue of her in their homes – sometimes more than one!

You know what I mean. It’s only brought out this time of year, and it’s usually in the context of a larger Nativity set (or several). Elaborate crèches feature Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the center surrounded by shepherds and sheep, magi and their servants, an angel, and a host of farm animals that would be the envy of any homesteader.

Simpler Nativity sets might include just the Holy Family and a single shepherd with sheep, along with a single representative Wise Man – or maybe just the Holy Family and a crib. And the simplest? The Occam’s Razor of Christmas decoration? Mary and her baby. That’s the essence of Christmas.

Jesus, the Son of God, is always the central character in these miniature figurine dramas, as He should be. But consider that rarely is the baby Jesus depicted without His mother – unless you count all those gaudy images of the Infant of Prague, with the frills and the trappings and the lace. Even then, Mary’s presence is felt, because who else but a mother would dress up an infant boy like that?

Oh, but it’s all just Nativity sets, right? Practically toys, or possibly family heirlooms that have been passed down over a couple generations or more. They’re just illustrations of a Bible story in which God the Father is the primary actor. No special credit is meant to be given to Mary just because her image is on display.

holy-family-set-standardYet, skittishness about excessive Marian devotions and fears of Mariolatry are part of the air non-Catholics breathe, so you’d think there’d be at least some hesitation about Nativity scenes – but there’s none. Come November every year, graven images of Mary are on display everywhere, and nobody gives it a second thought.

Why?

Sentimentality plays a part, I suppose. St. Francis set up the first life-size crèche in 1223, and we’ve been oohing and aahing ever since. But even for Christians quite conscientious about such matters, it’s a natural, healthy instinct to honor the Holy Family with a Nativity scene. To be able to see and touch Jesus, Mary, and Joseph isn’t just for kids. It’s also a tangible expression of a theological truth that is itself about tangible expression: The Incarnation. Given that the Nativity is all about making the spiritual and unseen into something – Someone – very physical and see-able, it seems only fitting, even to the most rigorous fundamentalist, that the Holy Family and the Christmas story be depicted in a manner accessible to all our senses.

But perhaps there’s another element as well, one that is a bit more subtle and less readily acknowledged by our Protestant kin.

It’s this: Mary is the first Christian – the first to literally accept Jesus as her Saviour. That makes her a template and model for all Christians, and it’s good to have images to remind us of her –and not just at Christmas, but year round.

I pondered all this the other day when leading devotionals for my clinical group. I teach nursing at an Evangelical college that was founded primarily to prepare young people for the mission field. Almost all my students are Protestants; few of them have much familiarity with things Catholic. So I teach them.

It was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I talked a little about Mary and her special place in our common Christian heritage. There are two Gospels to choose from that day, both from Luke. For my students, I read aloud the Nativity story itself, including Gabriel’s declaration that Mary would play a singular role in God’s wild rescue plan for the world.

Instead of freaking out, Mary asks an honest question: How can that happen? – that is, how is it possible for her to get pregnant at all, let alone get pregnant with the God-man Himself?

As if to reassure the young girl that “nothing will be impossible for God,” Gabriel relates that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a son despite her advanced years. Mary’s “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” was not just acquiescence to the Lord’s weird scheme, but also a signal of active engagement. She was to be no mere vessel or medium, but a determined player as well.

Same with us.

So what?, my students might ask. What makes her any different than any other Christian responding to truth and God’s call? From their perspective, Mary is simply one in a series of biblical characters that became instruments in the hands of a God determined to save His fallen creatures.

That brings us to that second Gospel choice for last Thursday’s Feast: The Visitation. Mary, filled with Jesus at the Annunciation, turns around and brings Him to her cousin – the first mission trip! Elizabeth confirms Mary’s mission, and John has what may be truly said to have experienced a Christian ‘con-version’ (from the Latin for ‘turn about’) in the womb:

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.

It makes sense that the first Christian would be the first missionary, and Mary fits the bill in every respect. Compare, for example, what we see of Mary in Luke’s Gospel with the qualities expected of missionary candidates by Wycliffe Bible Translators:Vladimirskaya

  • Am I flexible in working with others in the body of Christ? (Mary rushes to assist her cousin in need [Lk 1.39-40])
  • Can others see Christ at work in my life? (Elizabeth testifies to Mary’s divine maternity [Lk 1.42-43])
  • Do I have healthy, growing family relationships? (Mary’s care for her cousin [Lk 1.39-43])
  • Am I ready to trust God to provide for me financially? (“He has filled the hungry with good things” [Lk 1.53])
  • Am I living within my means? (“For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” [Lk 1.48])
  • Am I living, and committed to continue in living, a lifestyle that is set apart in service to God? (“Let it be to me according to your word [Lk 1.38])
  • Am I ready to explore how God can use my specific interests, experiences, and job skills in Bible translation?

This last is especially applicable to Mary, and it connotes another point of contact for Christians of varying traditions. For, although Wycliffe is referring to translation of the written Word into various languages, Mary devoted her entire personhood – body, soul, and spirit – to ‘translating’ the Word (logos) of God into human flesh.

And that’s what all Christians are called to do: Take the Jesus we receive – in church, in Scripture, in Sacrament, however that happens – and translate Him for those around us – incarnate Him again and again through our own words and actions and lives.

This is why we like to have Mary around throughout the year: To jog memories of our mission and jolt us into action. This Christmas, as you put away your Nativity set, maybe keep out the mother and Child a little longer than the rest. See if their visible presence doesn’t help you remember what we’re all called to be: Pregnant couriers of Christ, just like Mary.

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A version of this story appeared on Oblation, a blog of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

Did He Show Up?

20 Oct

This is primarily a tribute to my friend Tim Roemer. Tim died last year just before Christmas, and I’ve been mulling over his death and life ever since.

It’s high time I got some of that mulling out of my head and into words, especially  with the first anniversary of his death approaching. I owe it to him, to his wife, Nancy, and to his kids, Peter and Anna. I owe it because, even though I’ll forever be in Tim’s debt, that’s no excuse to skip payments. Consider this a belated first installment.

A friend like Tim doesn’t come along very often, and he came along in my life at a crucial moment. He was fiercely loyal, embarrassingly generous, and extraordinarily self-effacing. Tim could also be infuriating at times (neglecting to pick up his wedding cake until an hour before his wedding comes to mind), and fantastically stubborn—just like the rest of us. In his case, however, it seemed like those were very small flaws compared to his many gifts and grand magnanimity.

Also, Tim was an idealist and a dreamer—a war tax resister, for example, and a regular at the Uptown Catholic Worker—so we found common cause as we stumbled around like a couple urban Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills and laughing at our foibles.

During this same time, I was discovering the Church, and, in time, embracing it, and my friendship with Tim gave me firsthand insight into what it meant to be a thoroughgoing Catholic. In fact, he was, along with my godfather and others in Uptown, among the first thoroughgoing Christians I’d ever encountered—thoroughgoing in the sense timthat Tim’s faith wasn’t an attachment or an addendum or just one aspect of his life, but rather it was his life, in a very natural, integrated way. So integrated, in fact, that he didn’t talk about it all the time, nor did he feel a need to draw attention to it. It was simply a given for Tim; it was assumed.

Three stories about Tim neatly summarize that integrated demeanor he modeled for me and which I’ve tried to emulate ever since. The stories all have Sacramental themes, and together they form a kind of catechetical triptych which continues to inform my own faith to this day. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. At the very least, if you’re a convert, you’ll appreciate these three Sacramental anecdotes, and why they helped me find my place in the Catholic universe.

First, Confession.

Tim loved to tell about battlefield priests during World War II who would hear Confessions of soldiers prior to major combat actions. “Are you sorry for your sins?” the priests would ask. “No,” would come the honest reply from war-hardened troops accustomed to less than saintly behaviors. Knowing that the troops faced the probability of death, and so anxious to grant them absolution, the priests would then ask, “But are you sorry that you’re not sorry?”

It sounds apocryphal, and maybe it is. Nevertheless, the story illustrates something profoundly true about the Church and her work of mediating the love of Christ to the world—namely, that He’s desperate to give it to us. Unlike the rather rigid formulas that most people associate with Catholicism, the God we encounter in Christ, the one we see in the Scriptures, the one the Church presents to us, is one who will go to any and every length to give us life and love and even Himself.

As Jesus said, God won’t be outdone by human fathers who generally provide good things for their families. Does a dad give his children stones when they ask for bread? Or scorpions when they ask for eggs? No, and usually he is working extra shifts to not only give them food and shelter and clothing, but cake and ice cream as well. Maybe even a trip to Disney World.

Yet human fathers are only a pale reflection of our heavenly Father who wants much more for us than treats and trips. He wants to give us heaven itself, and adoption, and eternity. He’s desperate to do it, and desperate times call for desperate measures. And that’s pretty much what the Gospels are all about.

Second, vocation.

This story hearkens back to the days when Tim and I were both wrestling with our life callings. Like him, I was oblivious to the painfully evident fact that God hadn’t called me to the priesthood. Tim figured it out way before I did—no doubt because, as a cradle Catholic, he was equipped to read the vocational tea leaves more readily. Nevertheless, until he finally relented and embraced his true vocation of marriage and fatherhood (in which both arenas he thrived), Tim had made halting progress in the discernment and seminary application process with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During one of his interviews, my friend was asked what he thought about the role of women in the Church. Without any hesitation, Tim responded, and it was a simple, direct, vocation-squelching, yet wise classic: “Women’s role in the Church? Same as men: To become saints.” Clearly this wasn’t what the vocation folks in the chancery wanted to hear.

Rather, they wanted some nuanced and politically sensitive ramble about changing cultural attitudes, development of doctrine, and expanding opportunities for women’s participation in the liturgy and church governance. This was in the Cardinal Bernardin heyday, and the archdiocesan middle management was overwhelmingly “progressive.” Orthodoxy had to be gilded with a liberal patina in order to survive such vetting episodes.

None of that for Tim, however. He, like me, saw that the Church needed priests, and he pursued ordination accordingly—out of a sense of love and duty more than a sense of calling. But even if some fancy Jesuitical footwork could’ve enabled Tim to fly below the vocation office’s orthodoxy radar, it was a price too high, and that interview foretold the eventual demise of his priestly quest. That was a good thing, of course, because as Nancy and the kids can attest, his vocation lay elsewhere.

Here, too, Tim became a role model for me, as he took up marriage and fatherhood with the same tenacity and drive that characterized his do-gooder Catholic Worker-ism. “If God has called me to become a saint through marriage and family life,” I can imagine him saying, “well, then, dammit, let’s get on with it!” If he didn’t actually say those words, that’s certainly how he lived, and I took his example to heart.

Misa_Mosaico_SMarcosFinally, the Eucharist.

I lived with Roemer, along with our mutual friend and my godfather, Jim Eder, for a longish portion of my Uptown, Catholic Worker days. All three of us were daily Communicants, although we often went to Mass separately and at different times. Often I would go alone to the 8 am weekday Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury. When I returned to our flat, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect.

Eder would already be off to work, having attended the 6:45 am liturgy. Tim would be home, sitting in an easy chair and reading the Tribune amid the clutter and mess of our apartment. Entering our six-flat building and climbing the stairs to the third floor would involve enough noise that Tim would be alerted to my imminent arrival. When I entered our flat, Tim would invariably drop the paper enough to make eye contact with me and utter his favorite question deadpan: “Did He show up?” My answer, always in the affirmative, would be met with a grunt of approval, and the paper shield would be restored.

What might sound like sacrilege or, at best, irreverence always struck me as a preeminent sign of Tim’s secure faith, and I admired his comfortable familiarity with the miracle of the Mass and the wonder of the Church. He was truly at home in that vast Catholic Thing, and I envied him.

In addition, however, Tim’s seemingly flippant question was rooted in a profound insight regarding, first, our own utter dependency on divine grace, and, second, our dire responsibility as well. The humor in Tim’s daily query is that He always “shows up,” no matter what—it’s what He promised us, after all. “And, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age,” He told the Apostles just before the Ascension.

The real question, you see, is whether we show up—or rather, whether I do. He will always be there, no question, ready for whatever problems or difficulties or sufferings I might bring Him, and ready to give Himself totally to us, to feed us with His very self. Will I come to that encounter hungry for Him? Will I come ready with an open heart and a submissive will? Will I come prepared for what He wants to give me and do for me no matter what?

Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you for the Faith lessons you taught me: that God desperately wants to save us, that he desperately wants to sanctify us, and that all we have to do is let Him. Pray for me that, like you, I may show up whenever He does.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Lazy Man’s Spirituality

29 Sep

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
~ G.K. Chesterton

My high school choir director couldn’t have been more emphatic. “Whatever you do, whatever happens, no matter whatever else you do wrong,” he told us before we left for Europe, “don’t lose your passport!”

Needless to say, I did.

I made it through four countries without a hitch, stashing my passport in my hotel room after check-in, and retrieving it before departure. When we hit Brighton, England, however, I got a bit too clever. I hid my passport so well that I couldn’t find it several days later before leaving for London. As a result, I spent a whole day at the U.S. Embassy filling out forms and being grilled by officials while my compatriots toured Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Bummer.

On the plus side, however, I got to hang out at the U.S. Embassy—something my Palace and Abbey visiting friends missed out on completely. The Embassy was a fairly boring encounter in itself, to be frank, but being in that physical space—inside the Embassy, on American turf within the confines of a foreign country—was unexpectedly solemn and comforting. There, I was home, although not home. There I wasAmerican_Eagle_on_the_London_Embassy safe and could get the help I needed to continue my journey home.

I have similar feelings when I go to Mass every day. It’s like I’m slipping into God’s embassy for a respite from the jarring and disorienting journey of my daily jumble of life.

Hilaire Belloc touches on this in The Path to Rome, where he talks of daily Mass as a source of both spiritual and temporal goods.

Of course there is a grace and influence belonging to such a custom, but it is not of that I am speaking but of the pleasing sensation of order and accomplishment which attaches to a day one has opened by Mass.

Belloc lists four reasons that daily Mass is comforting to him—four reasons that James Schall, SJ, described as being “as profound as any seen in theological literature since.”

For example, Belloc includes the simple fact that by attending daily Mass, one is setting aside thirty minutes or so to be quiet and “recollected,” putting aside “cares, interests, and passions”—an action that “must certainly be a great benefit to the body,” says Belloc.

He also notes that Mass is a ritual, and that when you give yourself over to that ritual, it takes over and can “relieve the mind…of responsibility and initiative and…catch you up (as it were) into itself, leading your life for you during the time it lasts.”

The “most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction,” says Belloc, is that daily Mass attendance is an ancient tradition—and it wouldn’t be an ancient tradition if it wasn’t important. “Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit…we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy….”

But my favorite of Belloc’s four reasons is his third—Mass as an escape and a refuge.

3. That the surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts…. Thus the time spent at Mass is like a short St._Peter's_RC_Church_Chicago_from_eastrepose in a deep and well-built library, into which no sounds come and where you feel yourself secure against the outer world.

Note that he says that the surroundings themselves incline you such, and that the “time spent at Mass” is itself the repose, regardless of your attentiveness or even interior disposition. In other words, taking all his four causes together, Belloc is suggesting that the mere act of getting to Mass has value, even infinite value.

Now in the morning Mass you do all that the race needs to do and has done for all these ages where religion was concerned…and all that your nature cries out for in the matter of worship.

This is vitally important, especially to a slug like me. I am not always properly disposed or attentive at Mass—a truism that might be lost on those who don’t make Mass a daily priority. Those of us who do make it a priority know that it’s certainly not because we’re particularly holy, or anywhere close to it. In fact, the opposite is the case: We know we’re lousy sinners, and we want to be holy. Getting to daily Mass is just the lazy man’s approach to the matter.

Lazy man’s approach because, as Belloc was suggesting, all you have to do is show up to accrue some benefit. I even confessed this once—that my practice of going to Mass every day seemed like spiritual sloth because it was just too easy. Shouldn’t I be doing more than that? My confessor laughed and pointed out the pride in my question. “Just being at Mass is of infinite value, regardless of your state of mind,” he said. “Remember that Jesus is the one who is the real Actor there. You never know how He’ll be able to get through to you, but it’s up to you to get yourself into the pew.”

Romano Guardini writes about this in his Meditations Before Mass:

At the celebration of the Lord’s memorial we are not dependent on our own faculties of perceiving and appreciating; Christ works with us. Primarily it is He who acts; in our “remembering,” it is Christ Himself who stirs.

On the other hand, Guardini also speaks of a “veritable crisis of boredom and weariness” when Mass becomes just routine.

When the Mass threatens to become a habit for someone who goes regularly during the week, it is certainly advisable for him to attend less frequently, perhaps only on Sundays for a while, substituting visits in the quiet church or Bible reading.

Gulp—is that me? I must confess that I’m frequently distracted at daily Mass, or even so fatigued that I routinely fall asleep (hopefully during the homily). Yet, even then, isn’t there greater value in getting to Mass than simply making a visit or reading my Bible? If I make it inside the door, and I’m present for the miracle that takes place there, isn’t that always preferable to virtually everything else?

My confessor and Belloc would argue in the affirmative, I think, and perhaps even the Holy Father.

In his recently published interview, Pope Francis referred to the Church in medical terms:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

pope1_0What a terrific image of daily Mass! When I get my sorry self into the pew for Mass every day—despite the distractions and fatigue, and regardless of how attentive or disposed I am—I’m a wounded warrior that needs first aid and basic care before returning to the battle. Yes, I need to strengthen my prayer life outside of Mass, and, yes, I need to say my Rosary and find time for spiritual reading.

But for the moment—a spiritual expatriate in need of assistance, a limping combatant requiring balm—just being there is enough. And I’ll be back again tomorrow, please God.

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A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

God Only Knows

15 Sep

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Sheryl Crow must be a pretty big star. I know this because it’s apparently significant that she’s gone all country now—significant enough to warrant an interview in the Wall Street Journal.

Crow’s country conversion also included a move to the country—to rural Tennessee where she’s hunkering down with her kids on a big farm. But Sheryl’s celebrity and music and domestic arrangements are not what caught my attention. It was her religion. Here it is:

Since I was 21, I’ve always had a strong relationship and an everyday, ongoing dialogue with a higher power. He or She seems to be most evident in nature, which I guess is why I’m so environmentally driven to preserve what we have around here.

It’s a religion, alright, and Crow “considers herself a Christian,” but really it’s her own personal credo—a DIY version of religion that most people call their “spirituality” these days.

Baloney. There’s a lot of nonsense going around about the divorce between rigid, stale religion (which some people still feel the need to cling to), and effervescent, lively spirituality (which everybody can possess apart from religious belief), but it’s all bunk. Any spiritual insight or practice that isn’t merely a fleeting whim morphs into a religion almost immediately. A religion is a rule, a pattern, and if you repeat a spiritual innovation, even just once, *BAM*, you’ve got yourself a religion. All you need is tax exempt status, and you’re in business!

Sheryl-Crow-Beach-Her-Kids-PicturesNo offense to Sheryl Crow, by the way. It sounds like she’s been through some rough patches, including cancer and divorce, and I respect that she’s trying to do right by her two boys—reconciling a hectic superstar performer’s career with motherhood can’t be easy. I’m sure her spirituality—her religion—has been a comfort to her, and it helps her find her way.

But an “everyday relationship” with a He or She? I’m guessing Sheryl hedged on the gender to avoid giving offense, and she’s free to believe as she sees fit, of course. But, if a hedge, is it really a good idea to shape belief in deference to the sensitivities of others? And if it wasn’t a hedge, is that really how she addresses her Higher Power? Wouldn’t “He and She” be preferable? Or just “She,” if it’s simply a nod to feminist sensibilities?

If I were on the prowl for a fresh take on Christianity, I’d keep my antennae up for ideas that work the negative side of the God equation—a.k.a., apophatic theology, an import from the East that zeroes in on what we know we don’t know. To wit: No definitive revelation about whether God is He or She? Then, skip the question altogether, and use “It.” After all, Obi-Wan Kenobi never used a personal pronoun in reference to The Force. It wasn’t a person; it was a thing. You don’t dialogue with a thing, and there’s no reason to ascribe personhood (and gender[s]) to a thing if you don’t have to.

In any case, I’m not in the market for a new religion. I like Catholicism, one of the old ones. I’m lousy at it, but I believe what the Church teaches. It somehow helps make sense of a crazy world, and I even retain some hope that God won’t give up on me despite my daily moral blunders, volitional gaffes, and outright scaly sins.Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Plus, orthodox Christianity includes plenty of apophatic elements, in addition to paradox and mystery. It’s an adventure; it’s dangerous; it’s truly the Wild West of religions. And the best part is that, at its core, Christianity is a Person—a definite “He” who breathed the same air as we.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you (I John 1:1-3).

Jesus practiced a trade, made friends and enemies, ate, drank, suffered, died. And yet He lives still, inviting our relationship and dialogue. It’s a maddening Faith, calling us to sanctity in the midst of our frailty. Outrageous, keeping us always a bit off balance, but earthy and real. I’ll take that over a DIY’er religion any day.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Saint TBA

1 Sep

There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.
~ Leon Bloy

“More and more, I was wishing I could be Kyle Decker.”

So says Doug Barnes, the adolescent narrator of Dave Barry’s Christmas tale, The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. As Doug tells it, Kyle excels at sports, is “cute” (according to the girls), and “doesn’t hack around” (according to the teachers). The problem for Doug, however, is that Kyle appears to have captured the heart of Judy Flanders, Doug’s big crush.

Kyle’s advantage seems formidable, which leads to Doug’s existential aspiration. Of course, we all know that Doug can’t be Kyle. Only Kyle can be Kyle. And Doug can only be Doug—plain, old Doug.

This story, and specifically Doug’s wish to take Kyle Decker’s place, came to mind as our pastor gave his “Our goal is to become saints” homily at the first-day-of-school Mass a couple weeks back. It’s a theme that runs through all his homilies: Everything—in school, in work, in life—everything has to be subservient to getting to heaven, to getting to Jesus in an ultimate and eternal way.

That’s as it should be. It’s basic to the Gospel message, and particularly underscored by the Second Vatican Council—the “universal call to holiness” they called it. Every follower of Jesus must seek to put away sin, and to grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love—it’s not optional. All those saints we see depicted in church—the statues, icons, and stained glass windows? That’s supposed to be us someday: Citizens of heaven mingling with the angels and the holy ones around God’s throne forever.

C’mon, let’s be real, right? It’s a bit daunting, holiness and all. Saints are saints, and we’re, in a word, just…Dougs.

kolbeTake, for example, the saint commemorated at that first school Mass: St. Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish Franciscan of extraordinary resourcefulness and resolve, who made use of every form of media available at the time to spread the Gospel around the world—surely a patron saint of the communication age.

Yet Fr. Kolbe is best known for what he did at Auschwitz where he was imprisoned in 1941. There had been a successful prison outbreak, and the Nazis selected ten men to die for revenge and as a deterrent. When Fr. Kolbe found out that one of the men was a young husband and father, he volunteered to take his place—an offer the Nazis readily agreed to. Kolbe died in Auschwitz on August 14, 1941. And the man whose life was spared by Kolbe’s sacrifice? He survived the war, and even attended Kolbe’s canonization in 1982.

What a story! What a hero! Could I be a saint like Maximilan Kolbe?

Well, no—because I’m not Maximilian Kolbe. I mean, the chances are slim and none that I’d ever be given an opportunity to sacrifice my life for another person, but that’s not the point. If it were, I might be tempted to let myself off easy—you know, with a sigh of relief, and maybe a prayer or two for all those who still suffer religious persecution throughout the world.

So, no, I’m not called to be another St. Maximilan Kolbe, or any other canonized saint for that matter. Their stories are edifying, and their examples inspiring, but I’m called to be a different kind of saint—and it’s an even more unnerving prospect than trying to be another Maxilimilian. For I’m called to be a sanctified version of myselfto become, in fact, St. Rick Becker.

Not canonized, mind you, but a real saint all the same. It’s the goal of the Christian life, after allto become a citizen of heaven and to enter into that heavenly family reunion for all eternity. That’s what saints are, whether they’re officially recognized or not. And as humiliating as it is to suggest, it’s what God made me foryou, too! Needless to say, God does all the work, molding and prodding, shaping and pruning. As He goes about His business, we just need to avoid mucking things upand we even depend on Him to help us do that!

Dorothy Day, among others, would agree. Herself a candidate for official recognition as a saint these days, Dorothy had mucday1965h to say about holiness and sainthood. She strongly discouraged talk about her own sanctity, and was famous for saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

Yet Dorothy frequently stressed the requirement that every Christian live a holy life—that saintly living wasn’t reserved to the halo crowd, but was fundamental to the Faith. “All are called to be saints, not to do the extraordinary,” she wrote. “If sanctity depended on doing the extraordinary, there would be few saints.”

This is consistent with how she lived her life: Caring for the poor, standing up for justice, challenging the strong, guarding the week were, to her, the ordinary duties of anyone claiming the name Christian. Not to “earn” her salvation, but to “show” her salvation, as St. James argued. And she certainly wasn’t seeking to be a Great Saint. Instead, and despite her demurrals, she was simply seeking to become whom God intended her to be: Dorothy Day the saint.

And that’s our goal too—not to be little replicas of Dorothy Day or Maximilian or whichever saint we aspire to imitate. Our goal—God’s goal, in fact—is that we would become our own saints by allowing Jesus to conquer and transform in us every last vestige of resistance to Him.

Another saintly feast happened to coincide with the second day of school—the Assumption of Mary—and it’s a feast that highlights two realities that are pertinent here. First, Mary is our prototype for becoming saints. All we need do is utter our “yes” like shthe-assumption-and-coronation-of-the-virgine did, and God will do the rest.

And, second, by living that “yes” and persevering, we can anticipate sharing in Mary’s heavenly reward—something we affirm every time we recite the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Mary blazed the trail for us—you, me, everybody—and we have her maternal support and guidance to help us follow her to Glory. Pope Francis said as much on Assumption Day when he spoke of Mary’s Magnificat as “the song of hope,” which is also “the song of many saints … some famous, and very many others unknown to us but known to God: moms, dads, catechists, missionaries, priests, sisters, young people, even children and grandparents.”

Even Dougs.

You have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect
.
[Hebrews 12:22-24a, NAB]

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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