Tag Archives: Chesterton

Of May Crowning, Corniness, and the 4-H Fair

17 May

“It turns out that Mary is a really big deal for the Catholics.”
~ Dave Barry

What a sap I am.May-Procession-005

Last Friday was May Crowning at my parish, and so I arrived loaded for bear: Two clean hankies at the ready, not to mention optimal pew positioning – close to the center aisle, but not too close to anyone I knew.

Why? It’s so predictable: Once the procession begins and we start singing those corny Marian songs, I commence blubbering – like clockwork, every year. Usually I can hold off through “Immaculate Mary” and “Sing of Mary,” but the clincher is always “Queen of the May:”

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest.

Picture the children in their Sunday best, with hands pressed together and eyes (for the most part) directed forward, solemnly approaching the statue of Mary in the sanctuary.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling,
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

And then there’s us in the back pews, the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, oohing and aahing, snapping photos, recording videos.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Even with the distractions and the pictures, how can we resist being drawn into the schoolchildren’s sweet devotional gesture? I know I can’t. I sob, dry my eyes, and sob some more – a  mawkish mess. Sure it’s sentimental, saccharine even, but how any Catholic can withstand that surge of emotion is beyond me.

G.K. Chesterton had a similar idea when he wrote about Marian devotion – particularly the over-the-top sentimental variety:

In people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist. I want to be enthusiastic about the existence of the enthusiasm.

maycrowningHence enthusiasm (complete with sobs) at May Crowning, and almost without regard to one’s typical level of Marian fervor. It’s all about mom, after all – like Mother’s Day for Mary. We’re so glad to be doing something simply to please her and thank her. And like any good mom, Mary isn’t all that particular. She doesn’t care if it’s a dozen roses or a dandelion from the backyard – an expensive Hallmark card, or a scribbled crayon drawing on a paper scrap. What matters is that we remember – not for her sake, of course, but for our own. It’s good for children to remember their mothers.

It’s good, first of all, because gratitude is a character trait that must be cultivated, beginning with gratitude to our mothers. Our human moms gave us life; Mary gave us Jesus. “Let it be to me according to your word,” was her reply to Gabriel, and it was in that simple Fiat that we have any access to spiritual life at all. Moreover, not to be outdone in generosity, Jesus in turn gave us Mary. “Behold, your mother,” he told the Beloved Disciple, and, through him, all of the church – which is only fitting, given that the church is her own son’s Body.

As my pastor pointed out at Friday’s May Crowning, Mary’s care for us is an extension of the care she provided Jesus throughout his earthly life because now we are truly part of him, the Mystical Body of Christ. As such, we seek to be ever more conformed to his likeness, and it is here that Mary’s maternal care is preeminently manifest. John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium, wrote:

As Christians raise their eyes with faith to Mary in the course of their earthly pilgrimage, they “strive to increase in holiness.” Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father’s house.

Therein lies the second reason it’s always good to lavish our affection on Mary at opportune moments like a May Procession – when it’s easy, for example, and everybody is doing it. Such tokens establish (or reinforce) the habidorothyt of turning to her when it’s not so easy or pleasant. “Wherever they may be or whatever their condition,” the Pope noted. That means the mom who receives our blossoms and childish sentiments at May Crowning will also receive our pleas for assistance when our situations are much more dire and disturbing. “She is the Mother of fair love,” wrote Servant of God Dorothy Day, “of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope.” The former Bohemian and socialist, no stranger herself to the rougher sides of life, further expanded this theme:

No matter where it is, no matter how perverse and distorted, no matter how dark and tortured, there is still in all love a suggestion, a hint of this love of God.

Once again, we do well to remember that she is not particular, and her acceptance of our meager gestures, no matter how broken or bent, can and will transform them into glorious tributes.

That brings me to the St. Joseph County 4-H Fair. For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege, along with several local Knights of Columbus, of manning the Legion of Mary’s Catholic Information fair booth in the evenings. It’s a blast, and I look forward to it every year – almost like a mini-retreat. The Legion provides a wealth of pamphlets and written material about the Catholic Faith as well as information about various Catholic practices and prayers – all to the good. But my favorite part are the Rosaries – loads of them, and all free! When I relieve the Legion ladies who’ve been occupying the booth all day, the first thing I do is load up my arms with a variety of Rosaries – blue, pink, green, purple – and then stand out in front of the booth to pass them out.

This is when the fun begins, for it’s simply amazing how many folks will take them: Young, old, girls, boys, from every culture and walk of life, and certainly Catholics (regardless of how active they’ve been) as well as non-Catholics. “Really, it’s free?” they’ll ask.grange-fair-2

“You bet, and here’s a little booklet to tell you how to use it,” I’ll say, usually with the follow-up, “in case you’ve forgotten.”

Sure, some of the younger fair-goers will take a Rosary as a joke, but not as often as you’d think. Instead, when the non-Catholics hear about using the Rosary for prayer instead of just wearing it as an ironic accessory, quite a few grow curious and want to hear more.

“The Rosary isn’t about worshiping Mary,” I’ll tell them. “It’s actually about praying with Mary to her son. In fact, it’s asking the Mother of Christ to be our mother, too!”

Do they all get it? Will they all go home and pray their pink and green and purple Rosaries that night? Probably not – maybe never. Some of the Rosaries will collect dust in forgotten junk drawers; some will be discarded; others might be retained as good-luck charms. Yet the fair-goers who accepted them did so freely, and at some level the idea sunk in that an unwavering mother’s love was involved. That’s not mere sentimentality. It’s a seed that, with time and grace and Mary’s care, just may germinate and grow.

“All I think I ever asked of her,” Dorothy Day observed of Mary, “was that she should take care of me.” That’s not just a comforting notion for schoolchildren, and we needn’t be ashamed that it brings tears to our eyes.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Altar Server Surrogate

25 Apr

The role of server is integral to the
normal celebration of the Mass (

It’s Monday. I arrive early for the 5:30 p.m. Mass, settle down in a pew to read through the Gospel, and quiet my mind after a busy day.

Prayer, then drifting, eyes wandering over the sanctuary, the big Crucifix, the icons. There’s Fr. Dunkle, lighting candles on the altar – he forgot to light the Paschal candle. Now he’s carrGiacomo_di_Chirico_Ministrantying chalices over to the credence table.

Wait. Father is carrying the chalices and lighting the candles? Where are the altar servers? I’m fully alert now, and moving up to the sanctuary, a quick genuflection, a hand motion to Father – he’s carrying out the Sacramentary now.

“No altar servers, Father?” I ask in a whisper.

He shrugs. “Nope, I guess not.”

That’s very unusual for St. Matt’s. We have superbly trained altar servers at our parish, and at least three are scheduled for every Mass. There’s a nice division of labor as they assist at the altar – the Bell, the Book, and the Cross they call themselves – but if one or two don’t make it for some reason, all the essential jobs can be undertaken by a single server in a pinch.

“Can I help?” I offer as I follow him into the sacristy. I haven’t served Mass for a long time, but after watching my own kids learning the ropes throughout the years, I thought I could handle it.

“That would be good,” he says. “Even just to carry things over from the credence table.”

“Should I wear an alb?”

“No, that’s OK,” he replies. “Let’s go.”

To be Christ’s page at the altar, to serve Him freely there,
Where even the angels falter, bowed low in reverent prayer.

We process out of the sacristy and genuflect toward the tabernacle. Fr. Dunkle walks around and reverences the altar with a kiss, and then we both proceed to the side of the sanctuary. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Let’s see, he’ll need the Sacramentary for the Collect – when do I fetch it? Distracted, not tuned in to the penitential rite. Then I see Father put his hands out in the Orans position: “Let us pray.” Oh, right, that’s my cue. I retrieve the Sacramentary from the niche by the sacristy and stand before Father with the book open on my hands. He prays; we sit; the lector moves to the ambo – calm, quiet, listening.

To touch the throne most holy, to hand the gifts for the feast,
To see Him meekly, lowly, descend at the word of a priest.

First reading, St. Stephen’s trial (think, think, what’s next); Psalm and response (do I need to be remembering anything?); alleluia and acclamation, stand up – the Gospel. I lean toward Father and murmur, “Do you want me to accompany you with a candjohnberchmansle from the altar?” He shakes his head and makes his way over to the lectern. John 6, Bread of Life discourse preliminaries, homily – focus, focus, listen.

Father returns to his seat, pause, then we stand – intercessions. “We pray to the Lord.” Lord, hear our prayer. At the second intercession, I return to that niche for the Sacramentary and the pillow it rests on to prop it open on the altar. After setting it in place, I head over to the credence table – two chalices, paten, linens – and then return to the altar. Corporal open first, right? Which way does it go? The Chi-Rho is upside down – a quick switch and all is well. Chalices in place, paten – Father is done with the intercessions and moving in this direction. The cruets! I forgot the cruets! The priest and I pass each other exchanging grins as I head to the sacristy.

Wine, water – there they are in the mini-fridge, all ready to go. Father is done with the first part of the Offertory – I’m just in time; he turns to me. The stoppers – remove the stoppers. I set the water down on the altar and open the wine cruet before handing it to Father. After I unstop the water, we swap cruets – lavabo next. I’m on the wrong side of the altar – should I just walk behind him to the credence table? Father hands the water cruet back to me, and I scoot behind him to make a beeline for the basin and towel – no doubt a liturgical faux pas.

To hear man’s poor petition, to sound the silver bell,
When He in sweet submission, comes down with us to dwell.

After Father dries his hands on the towel, I replace the water and basin on the table, and then return to the side of the altar – prayer over the gifts, Preface dialogue, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Holy – Sanctus – Sanctus bells next. We kneel for the Canon, and I put my hand down on the ringer. When do I do these again? I miss the Epiclesis signal, but I get ready for the Minor Elevations – I won’t miss those. EP II: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – hold still.) “Do this in memory of Me.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – silence them on the carpet.)

Finally (*sigh*), that’s it. The rest is all matter, form, and minister – my ancillary duties are more or less complete. I default to interior drift, eyes wandering again, but this time behind the altar, immediately below the huge Crucifix that dominatesmatthewcath our Sanctuary. I look up – the Lord’s feet are right above me, nailed to the wood, bleeding and beautiful. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” I’m transfixed – servers see that every day. The Lord’s Prayer. “Agnus Dei.” Every day our servers have this exceptional perspective on ultimate surrender and mercy. Holy Communion.

No grander mission surely could saints or men enjoy;
No heart should love more purely than yours, my altar boy.

Following the Dismissal, as the congregation recites the Prayer to St. Michael, Fr. Dunkle and I retreat to the Sacristy. “Thanks,” he says simply. “My pleasure,” I reply – who am I kidding? Not so much pleasure, but rather privilege, boon, outlandish extravagance. And pleasure? On the threshold of Calvary? To assist with the wrenching of Heaven down to earth? To drink in so directly unfathomable love?

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” Chesterton proclaimed, and “an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” The trifling inconvenience of absent altar servers precipitated a monumental adventure for me. It should be I who does the thanking.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Lighter Side of Suicide

17 Aug

People rarely joke about suicide.
~ Dr. Aaron Kheriaty

robinThe whole world is mourning Robin Williams. He was a gifted comic; he made people laugh and smile, think and squirm; he shared his talents with the world and the world is better as a result.

Williams’ gift for comedy makes it all the more startling and tragic that he died by his own hand. So, even as we all mourn his death, we’re also talking a lot about suicide, and that’s good because there’s lots to talk about.

Here’s two affirmations of what’s already been said, followed by a somewhat quirky observation.

1. We can’t judge persons who attempt suicide. Many have made this point, including Williams himself. “We all eventually reach the end of our march,” he wrote in a foreword to Lt. Col. Mark Weber’s Tell My Sons. “If you discovered disease was about to cut your life short, no one could rightfully judge you for dropping out of line.”

The pain, the anguish, the hopelessness that drive people to suicide are impossible for others to grasp fully. Only God can, and we can be confident that he does so with infinite tenderness and compassion – it’s the teaching of the Church after all. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives,” the Catechism teaches. “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”Graham-Greene-001

This is the idea captured so well by Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter. After it’s revealed that Henry Scobie’s death was actually suicide, his widow doubts his salvation and her pastor sets her straight.

Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, ‘For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you – or I – know a thing about God’s mercy…. It may seem an odd thing to say – when a man’s as wrong as he was – but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.’

2. The act of suicide is always bad. While we surely can’t judge those who attempt it, we should avoid any confusion as to suicide as an objective evil. This used to be an obvious, commonsense idea, but we no longer have a cultural – or even legal – consensus regarding the act’s repugnance.

Consider the disjointed moralizing that NPR dished out earlier this summer on the subject. It was a story by Alix Spiegel several weeks back about a woman in Oregon who opted for legally sanctioned suicide and got her loved ones involved in the planning. “It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit,” the woman’s daughter commented at one point. “This was not a bad way to go.”

“Human exit.” “Way to go.” This is the language of intentionality, and intentionality is precisely the problem with suicide. Certainly dying is inevitable, but it’s still a curse. To choose it – embrace it even, orchestrate and choreograph it – is not a victory, but rather a surrender. Opting for intentional death may relieve ones suffering in the moment, but it is always a permanent defeat, never a triumph.

Emily Esfahani Smith makes this case in “The Catastrophe of Suicide,” where she points to G.K. Chesterton as being an especially important opponent of the practice:

Chesterton was one of our last full-throated critics of suicide. His insistence that suicide is immoral sounds strange to our individualistic ears: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” Chesterton wrote: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.”

ChestertonPortraitDetailSuicide is truly horrible – so horrible, in fact, that some kind of madness invariably accompanies it. No truly sane person will end his own life, and mental health professionals are on high alert when their clients even bring up the idea.

That’s part of the reason why there’s no room for personal condemnation: Those who kill themselves are rarely in their right minds when they actually do the deed. They often have untreated depression or mental illness of some kind, or uncontrolled, unbearable pain, and what they really need is aggressive treatment for relief, not “assistance” (physician or otherwise) in accomplishing their own demise.

In fact, when it comes to suicide, what really deserves censure is our society’s widespread moral amnesia that increasingly makes room for sanctioned self-destruction. Physician assisted suicide, now legal in five states, sounds both clinically tidy and profoundly merciful, but, let’s face it: It’s just really another way dispensing with suffering by dispensing with the one who suffers.

3. There is a lighter side to suicide. Believe it or not. You can treat it as an existential companion and gadfly instead of a dire threat, and, oddly enough, we can turn here again to Chesterton for guidance and insight.

One of G.K.’s lesser known poems is “A Ballade of Suicide.” Despite its title, it’s a bouncy, optimistic meditation that reveals both a profound sympathy with those driven to desperate acts and a resilient hope that such desperation can indeed be surmounted.

The “Ballade” starts off disarmingly with the narrator’s glib description of his morbid plan. “I tie the noose on in a knowing way,” he remarks nonchalantly. “As one that knots his necktie for a ball.” Chesterton even includes a chorus of onlookers who cheer him on in his goal, but then he holds back at the last minute:

The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Chesterton then proceeds to tick off an evocative list of activities and attitudes that have contributed to his change of heart – the prospect of payday, for example, and a novel approach to cooking mushrooms. Also, he sees “a little cloud all pink and grey,” and he remembers that he has never read “the works of Juvenal” – who has? These and other considerations have the cumulative effect of prompting the would-be suicide to change course, at least for that day.

And the “to-day” dimension of Chesterton’s poem is key. Like Alcoholics Anonymous’ well-known prescription of “one day at a time,” G.K.’s vision of suicide avoidance and prevention entails a valiant daily struggle against the temptation to give in to oblivion – something that Robin Williams also affirmed in that book foreword I mentioned earlier: “For those who refuse to let an incurable illness keep them from doing their duty, for those who keep fighting, for those who live life vigorously and joyfully to the very ePercy-2nd, we have names for those people. We call them heroes.”

Heroes, yes, and “ex-suicides” – a term coined by Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos. Ex-suicides are those of us, like Chesterton apparently, who have had reason to contemplate suicide, but have turned it down:

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.

Percy and Chesterton aren’t talking about once-in-a-lifetime, Damascus Road mental health conversions. Instead, the habit of rejecting suicide – that is, the project of remaining an ex-suicide instead of an actual one – is a daily slog, and there’s no letting up. Ever. Heroism doesn’t come cheap.

It’s the kind of heroism on display in the “The Fisher King,” my favorite Robin Williams movie which features him along with Jeff Bridges as especially memorable ex-suicides. Even better, however, is the cult classic “Harold and Maude.” For most of the film, the two titular characters are exuberant ex-suicides who seem to be well on harold-and-maudetheir way to inner healing and emotional stability. At the very end of the movie, however, after Maude regrettably ends her life, Harold’s intense grief seems likely to overwhelm his tenuous hold on living. He could follow Maude’s lead, but he doesn’t – an ex-suicide if there ever was one.

No, we don’t judge those who choose suicide, but we surely ought to judge the act and strongly urge the vulnerable to spurn it. The world needs more self-conscious ex-suicides, and Robin Williams was an especially heroic one for years, decades even. Sure, we’ll miss his knack for eliciting smiles, but I for one will especially miss his example of persevering ex-suicide heroism.

To honor him, I think I’ll locate a copy of “The Fisher King” and watch it with my teens. And, following G.K.’s lead, maybe I’ll track down a copy of Juvenal to keep by my bedside. You know, just in case.


A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Tripping Over the Church

27 Apr

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (St. Paul).

One of my students who is interested in Catholicism asked for something on the marytownEucharist a while back. I gave her Fr. Robert Barron’s book, and recently she was telling me how much she enjoyed it. Knowing that she was from the Chicago area, I mentioned that Fr. Barron was rector of Mundelein seminary. “There’s a Catholic seminary in Mundelein?” she asked, incredulously. “Where?”

I Googled it and showed her, and then pointed out Marytown, the nearby Franciscan shrine in Libertyville. That was even a bigger surprise. Turns out, she’s been driving right past Marytown to visit her grandmother for years, and never knew it was there. That’s surprising, especially if you know Marytown at all, because it’s hard to miss. But, of course, my student had no reason to keep an eye out for Marytown, and so it’s no wonder she overlooked it.

The whole exchange called to mind my one visit to Rome so many years ago. I was there with my folks and my sister, and we lodged at an inn within walking distance of the Vatican. After we slept off the worst of our jet lag, we decided to stroll over to catch a first glimpse of St. Peter’s. After we got vague directions from the hotel staff, we wandered off and naturally got completely lost. If you’ve been to Rome, you know: The neighborhood and streets in the immediate vicinity of St. Peter’s are crowded, even claustrophobic. It’s the closer we got to the square, the more we were convinced we had made a wrong turn.

Then, we turned a corner, and there it was: That massive pile, majestic and awesome, seemingly appearing out of nowhere – no, not appearing, looming, rising up, as if alive. What a shock! It took my breath away. How could something so extraordinarily huge be so hidden? In fact, if we hadn’t been looking for it – if we hadn’t known that it was in the vicinity – we might’ve missed it altogether. Either that, or we would’ve stumbled across it like a roadside historical marker hidden by an overgrown bush.

View-of-the-dome-of-the-Vaticans-Saint-Peters-Basilica-from-Borgo-Santo-Spirito-672x372Coming into the church was like that for me. My conversion was largely by way of Dorothy Day‘s life story and my experience of the Catholic Worker movement she helped found. As I discovered the Worker and its ethos of faltering aspirations to love sacrificially, it never occurred to me that its Catholic identity was essential to it.

But then I started reading G.K. Chesterton – a contemporary of Dorothy Day, and someone whose writings were familiar to her. Day’s dedication to the poor and to peace captivated my heart; Chesterton, on the other hand, captivated my thinking, and I was hooked.

Like this for example: “The Church is much larger inside than it is outside,” Chesterton wrote in his meditation on conversion, adding elsewhere the ironic observation that the Church is “larger than anything in the world; …indeed larger than the world.” That was certainly my experience. I encountered the Church as an accident – something that was seemed to be extraneous to the Catholic Worker shtick, not strictly essential. Yet, the more I got involved – the more I lived the life of the Worker from the inside – the more I discovered that it was truly bound up with Catholic belief and practice and Sacramental life. In a sense, by God’s grace, I had stumbled across the Church through my encounter with the Worker – that is, by walking into the Catholic Worker, I tripped over something infinitely bigger.

One of the earliest lessons in nursing school concerns preventing falls – assessing for fall risks, and then acting to mitigate those risks for patients in weakened conditions as much as possible. It’s pretty straightforward, really, and common sense, but it still bears emphasis: That falls can be often prevented by eliminating obstacles on the ground that people trip over.

Ah, but in religion? Falls and stumbles can be good – as in my case, to be sure, but, in general, for all of us, as Pope Francis pointed out in his homily at the canonization today: “The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith…. They are essential for believing in God. Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness.”

Stumble on!


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool

27 Apr

mcqueenI heard on the news that the FDA is getting all fired up about regulating e-cigarettes – possibly even banning them outright for youngsters.

Why? E-cigs may not have the risks associated with ordinary cigarette smoke, but they’re still a vehicle for delivering nicotine – an addictive, dangerous stimulant. Plus, there’s plenty of fear that e-cigarettes and “vaping” could make old-fashioned smoking “cool” again – disaster! Here’s from a story in the New Republic:

Tobacco control advocates worry that any effort to “normalize” even the rituals of smoking, as with e-cigs, could undermine hard-won battles to ban public smoking, re-establish smoking as cool, and lead to youth-directed marketing.

After all that hard work on the part of the feds and the healthcare workers to make smoking uncool, there’s a real possibility that it will suddenly get hip again.

Here’s the thing, though: Smoking is still cool. It never stopped being cool. It didn’t matter how many pictures of diseased lungs you showed kids, smoking’s allure never diminished. Heck, I’m a nurse with experience in cancer and hospice care, and an ex-smoker, and I even still think it’s cool.

You see, it’s not the nicotine so much as the culture – something Hilaire Belloc understood apparently. Here he is using a smoking analogy to make a point about Arianism:

To give a man the history of tobacco, to give him the chemical formula (if there be such a thing) for nicotine, is not to make him understand what is meant by the smell of tobacco and the effects of smoking it.

Think of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. Steve McQueen and, well, pretty much every actor (and actress) from the previous era (i.e., my era). They all smoked – on camera – and it was very cool.

Of course, that was back when smoking on screen didn’t land you an automatic “R” rating for your movie, thus walling you off from impressionable youngsters. But I’m not so sure today’s impressionable youngsters are so backward that they’re not still picking up the message (and images) that smoking is associated with coolness, despite the “R” ratings. Celebrities still smoke, after all, and they’ll still be seen doing so by our kids even if it’s not on the silver screen.

Smoking has always been associated with membership in the adult world – especially that upper echelon of adulthood in which serious issues and important matters cause so much stress that chemical stimulants (like nicotine delivered via smoke) are required to handle it all. Smokers were like Holden Caulfields, and if Holden’s angst appealed to you, so did his approach to managing it. Even if you avoided smoking yourself, you still secretly longed to be part of the angst-ridden clique that coped by lighting up.

What was true then is true today: Cool often trumps truth, and no amount of public health marketing and browbeating will change that.

Note to evangelists, catechists, and youth ministers: The same principle applies to the Gospel. And forget the hype surrounding our new cool Pope. There’s simply no way to make Christianity itself cool, and you’ll discover that those outside the church have already figured this out.

But, really, it’s not a remarkable finding. Just walk into any Catholic church, and you’ll see behind the altar a guy being tortured to death. That’s who Christians worship, that’s our God. There’s simply no way to make that cool.

In fact, it’s totally uncool. It’s about sacrifice and martyrdom. It’s about meekness and turning the other cheek. It’s about kissing lepers and loving the enemy and taking care of the poor even when the poor resent your care.

And it’s also about a whole range of related causes and positions that are bound to offend just about everyone – things like the right to life, the defense of traditional marriage, rational immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, and sane alternatives to perpetual war.

We need to quit kidding ourselves, especially when we’re reaching out to teens and young adults. Like smoking cessation, Christianity will never be able to count on the coolness factor. But truth? As Chesterton wrote of his own conversion:

The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

Of course, our Lord said it first – and better: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Cool – like vaping – has no staying power. Truth and freedom, on the other hand, never go out of style.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Gentleman.

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.

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.


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.


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

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.


A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

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