Tag Archives: G.K. Chesterton

Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

14 Jan

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.”
~ Walker Percy

I’m what you’d call a “fair-weather runner” – which means I’m not running these days. Come spring, however, and the thaw (God willing), you’ll find me out there on the street almost daily: Putting in my miles, getting ready for my 5Ks, running my 5Ks, chasing my younger kids on their bikes when they let me. It’s my annual endorphin spree, and just enough aerobic workout (averaging out the year) to stay in decent shape (again, God willing).

Otherwise, my athleticism is entirely derivative and vicarious.

And since we live in South Bend, that means football – Notre Dame football to be precise. Rooting for the Irish has always been an integral part of our family culture every fall, and that only intensified when my two oldest kids matriculated there. We watch the games on TV, we faithfully read the South Bend Tribune’s game day pull-out in anticipation, and we listen to post-game analysis on the radio. Frankly, that’s my favorite part. In fact, I generally skip watching altogether and rely instead on the radio broadcast. It allows me to work on other things (like dishes or the garage), and it reduces my stress when it’s a close game. Plus, the television broadcast is about 15 seconds behind the radio, so I get to hear the touchdowns and interceptions before everybody planted in front of the screen – much to their dismay. “Dad,” I’m regularly reminded, “don’t shout out when you see stuff! It ruins it!” (Sorry, guys.)

Anyway, the other part I like about the radio broadcast is that there’s nothing to distract me from the commentators and their analysis. Beforehand they’ll give me their Keys to the Game – stuff like “establish the running game, protect the football, and watch for the big play on special teams” – and I’ll nod my head vigorously in agreement. Following kickoff, I happily depend on the voices of IMG’s Don Criqui and Allen Pinkett to verbally sketch out the action for me. They’re my Notre Dame football gurus, and I accept their every aside and throwaway without question. “If you turn it over three times, you oughta’ lose,” Pinkett has repeatedly emphasized over the years. “If you turn it over four times, you gonna’ lose.” As a dedicated Pinkett disciple, I’ve come to consider that maxim a self-evident dogma.

Once football season is over, my radio listening habits largely revert to the dulcet tranquility of NPR, but I’ll still fire up CBS sports from time to time just to hear them rant and rave.

And, boy, do they ever rant and rave. Baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey – even tennis. Even golf, believe me! Most of the time, I have no absolutely no idea what they’re talking about – minutiae related to coaching techniques or on the field strategies or contract negotiations, whatever – but that’s part of the fun. As a near-total outsider, I can enjoy listening to the hosts, guests, and callers exchange shots regarding issues of great import to them, secure in the knowledge that it has no bearing on my life whatsoever. They’re strident; they’re uncompromising; they’re combative. “There’s no way this team is coming out on top” followed by “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!” I love it.

Why? I tell you, it’s the vehemence that’s so appealing. It’s the fight; it’s the undeniable evidence that these people are passionate about something and willing to make a stand. My family and I watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre last night, and there’s that scene near the beginning when Humphrey Bogart and his partner are brawling with the crooked boss who bilked them. As the fight ensues, you see other denizens of the bar casually nursing their drinks while observing the fracas. That’s me when I listen to sports radio. I listen to the sports guys duke it out and revel in their passions. Something has them riled up, and it’s good to see folks riled up – riled up enough to go at it with their opponents.

In other words, the fight itself is what I find satisfying, the disagreement and its manifestation in the form of conflict. Since it’s just radio talk, there’s no physical violence, praise God, but the verbal assaults can be vociferous and brutal. All the better.

There’s evidence that fighting about stuff is not only entertaining to others (me, at least), but healthy in itself. I heard mathematician Hannah Fry’s TED talk on NPR recently about the application of statistical analysis to the vitality of love relationships and marriage. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that the most successful marriages – the ones least likely to end in divorce, in other words – were those that include more conflict and confrontation rather than less. Here’s Fry from her talk:

I would’ve thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones…where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones…that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain.

It seems that bringing hurts and perceived slights, no matter how insignificant, to the fore is much healthier than simply overlooking them to keep the peace. Better to get the tensions and differences out in the open, that is, hash them out, bicker and fret, than to “go placidly” – Desiderata notwithstanding.

I think that’s the reason I found Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday so appealing when I first read it as a young Catholic-wannabe. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it (and I urge you to do so if you haven’t), there’s a delicious disorientation at the novel’s core that involves would-be Victorian bomb-throwers who are surprisingly sympathetic figures. Aside from their enchanting personalities as individuals, their very radicalism appeals, and by the end of the novel you’re rooting for them and derivatively swept away by the allure of Sunday, their ostensible, yet elusive, anarchist leader.

It’s clear that Chesterton, in Thursday, isn’t advocating actual physical violence as a remedy to society’s ills, but he is making a compelling case for violence nonetheless – a violence of conversion, that is, a no-holds-barred upheaval – in persons, in societies – that can lead to redemption and sanctity. “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.” As in marriage, goodness and holiness cannot be approached by merely being amiable. Indeed, amiability that glosses over conflict serves only to obstruct the very revolutions that usher in true change of heart.

“Would that you were cold or hot!” St. John records the Lord telling the Laodiceans. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Nothing doing. I’ll take my cue from the heat of sports radio and stay clear of lukewarm. So please forgive me if I’m cranky. I’m just working out my salvation.
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The Blessing of Marital Monotony

13 Nov

“The book of love is long and boring.”
~ Stephin Merritt

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Nailed: Outrage, Consolation, and a Helpless God

2 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His immobility beckons me to imitate his acceptance and perseverance. He beckons; I hesitate. He beckons; I pray. He beckons….
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This reflection also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Always Watching: Of Candles, Commands, and “The Joy of Love”

13 Apr

christ-and-the-penitent-sinners-gerard-seghers

“A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”
~ Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

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Waiting to Convert

30 Jun

742px-V&A_-_Raphael,_The_Miraculous_Draught_of_Fishes_(1515)

St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (CCC 1429).

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On Keeping Our Kids Catholic: The Indispensable Minimum

24 May

I’ve found that being a parent is about
learning to embrace your inner hypocrite.
~ Tom Kenny

The word is out from Rod Dreher that “Catholicism is failing in America.” Dreher looked at an interpretation of the recent Pew Research Center report on American religiosity, and he paints a pretty bleak picture. Roman Catholics are already falling behind Evangelicals in terms of conversion and member retention, and within a generation or two we’ll be a sorry minority. “If current trends continue,” Dreher writes, “Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country.”

young-adults-praying-montageWhat to do? To the ramparts! Look at the Evangelicals – they’re winning! So, we need more programs! More marketing! More jazzy youth meetings and young adult encounters. Guitar Masses and drums – or no-guitar, no-drum Masses, depending on focus group results. “Become all things to all men,” as Paul modeled, and then some! More internet! More streaming video! More tweets!

And Catholic families? All this hubbub is especially troubling to conscientious parents who strive to form their children in the Faith. Given the troubling stats and trends, it’s understandable that we’d be reduced to hand-wringing and agonizing. “My teens are bored,” we opine. “They want something…else,” followed by the kicker question: “How are we going to keep our kids in the Church?”

But that’s the wrong question.

This might sound callous, but I just don’t think it’s our job as parents to keep our kids in the Church, even in the short-term. That’s God’s job and, frankly, the job of our kids once they’re making decisions for themselves. Our job as parents is a lot more prosaic – and, consequently, a lot more challenging. “Parents have the most grave obligation,” reads the Code of Canon Law, “to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.” In other words, our grave obligation as far as the Faith is concerned is comparable to our obligations regarding food and shelter: Provide what is necessary for our children to thrive and flourish – to give them a good start on making it on their own. “Why?” Fr. John Hardon asks of this grave obligation to form our kids in the Faith. “In order to prepare them for eternal life in heaven. The only reason under God that parents even should bring children into the world is to prepare them for heaven.” Thus, it’s not my job to keep my children on the straight and narrow trajectory toward eternal life, but rather to prepare them for undertaking that task themselves.

For insight on how to carry out that grave duty, let’s turn to Dreher again. He writes that the average American Catholic worshiper “may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because lewis_pipewhat he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.” This might be news to Dreher and the folks at Pew Research; it ain’t news to the Church.

Indeed, it’s been that way from the beginning, starting with the Apostles themselves – including especially St. Peter, the first pope and betrayer-in-chief. There’s always been a disconnect between the visible Church – the one we ourselves inhabit in the here-and-now, the one with fallible, petty, sinful human beings in it like you and me – and the invisible Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” as C.S. Lewis described her. Using the voice of Screwtape, a senior demonic tempter, Lewis goes on to characterize the Christian’s experience of that disconnect in this way:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself…. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided…. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

Sound familiar? Of course! It’s a great description of what the average Catholic has to go through every weekend, and it’s precisely why “exercising his imagination and will,” as Dreher puts it, is so crucially important. We’ll always come up against hypocrisy and dryness in the practice of the faith, regardless of location or epoch. Yet if, with God’s grace, we persevere – imagining that God might succeed in making even us saints and willing to seek after truth no matter the cost – then neither circumstances nor setbacks can ultimately deter us. “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully,” the more seasoned Screwtape warns his demon apprentice regarding a young Christian, “they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”

A religious upbringing thus rooted in both a moral imagination that aspires to holiness and a will determined to affirm even unpopular truth becomes a lifeline of grace that keeps even the most wayward Catholic tethered to God – and can help him find his way home again. Chesterton’s Father Brown, relating his mediating role in helping restore a sinner to virtue, describes t220px-Gilbert_Keith_Chesterton2hat lifeline as a “thread:”

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

That thread, I think, should be our goal as parents: A thread of solid formation in morals and Church teaching that will keep even our most errant kids tethered to God – and which God himself can twitch to bring them back someday.

Let’s say I’m right, and the thread is the thing. Then the appropriate question to ask is not how to keep our kids in the Church, but rather this: How do we go about creating an ecclesial thread of imagination and will, and then getting our kids connected to it – particularly if, as sometimes happens, it might seem like our own thread is fraying. Speaking as a Catholic dad to other Catholic dads, let me cut to the bone with an answer: If nothing else, we need to daily attend to what the Catechism calls the “indispensable minimum” – otherwise known as the Precepts of the Church:

The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.

The precepts are certain obligatory behaviors and attitudes that our families, young and old, should take for granted because we ourselves, through our words and actions, take them for granted. They include the obligation to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days (without exception and no excuses); to receive the Eucharist at Mass when properly disposed and at least annually, and to receive the sacrament of Penance at least once a year as well (just standing in line for confession is a public testimony that we take responsibility for our screw-ups, so the more frequent the better for our kids); to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence during Lent (again, this is priceless public testimony that we take the Faith seriously); and, finally, to provide “for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” – that is, we tithe, even when the money is tight.

Even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it. And that goes for all those precepts and duties.

Ought we do more than this indispensable minimum? No doubt! Certainly, vigorous and thorough catechetical instruction along with full sacramental initiation is also required for proper religious upbringing. Plus, daily prayer, even daily Mass; family Rosary and other devotions; the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – these are just a smattering of suggestions, but they all rely on the bedrock of those precepts and duties. When we enforce those, for ourselves and for our families, we silently, subtly, and powerfully shape the way our children navigate their worlds.

This was beautifully expressed by R&B singer Aaron Neville last week at Notre Dame. Neville was this year’s recipient of the University’s prestigious Laetare Medal that is bestowed on American Catholics who have made distinct and lasting contributions to the well-being of our society and the Church. “I hope I’m worthy of standing next to the people who have receivaaronneville110113wed it before me,” he said. “If it’s for me trying to get my life on the right track the way God wanted me too, then I am worthy, because I know, and God knows, that I’ve tried.” Neville went on:

My early life has been a preview of where I am now. It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.

Dark times? Yes, dark times that included drugs, larceny, and jail. Ah, but the thread was there, thanks to Sr. Damien and Neville’s parents – his parents who undoubtedly worried about their rebellious son and wondered how they could get him back to the Faith. It would probably come as a shock to them, but they had, in truth, already laid the necessary groundwork for that return years before simply by doing their job as Catholic parents: Teaching their son right from wrong, for instance, and, guiding him to respect the Church and Sr. Damien, not to mention the Blessed Mother and our Lord.

Then, in time, twitch! – and he was home.

Aside from continual and fervent prayer, I’m convinced that nurturing such an organic connection to the Church – however threadlike it might be, and no matter how threadbare our own connection may be – is the best gift we can give our kids. We hope and pray that they stay in the Church their whole lives, but if they stray? Let’s do everything we can now to ensure they can find their way home.


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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Courage to Fail

2 Feb

gkc

Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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