Tag Archives: Leon Bloy

When History Shrugs: Pope St. Urban I (d. 230)

1 Oct

“It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

~ C.S. Lewis

My designated “Papa chair” is now located near a window, nestled between two bookcases. It had been in a different room altogether, but recent redecorating and refurbishing there required that my ratty old perch be shifted elsewhere.

Which is just fine. In fact, its new situation is ideal, particularly with reference to the wealth of analogue information within easy reach. I’m not a cell phone guy, and I’ll be the one they’ll have to jail someday when Big Brother decides that everyone has to have a smart phone. Consequently, when I’m sitting in my dad spot every morning, sipping my coffee and doing some meditative reading, I don’t fire up a gizmo to track down answers to fleeting questions. Instead, I grab a book – which, like my chair, is often enough ratty and old, and frequently requiring a quick puff along the top to disperse accumulated dust.

Recently, something in my early a.m. reading caused me to snag a weathered Encyclopedia of the Papacy off the shelf. Maybe it some oddball papal reference I’d come across and wanted to check up on; maybe it was my random church history cursor going off – who knows? In any case, I grabbed the Encyclopedia, blew off the dust, and thumbed through the pages, back to front. I made note of the earliest entries and their relative brevity compared to later ones. Indeed, some in St. Peter’s immediate line of succession only merited a line or two. “Stands to reason,” I thought. “The later the pope, the more likely there’d be surviving, solid documentation.”

Then my eye fell on the entry for Pope Urban I, who served the Church of Rome for eight years before his death in 230. Here’s the entry in its entirety: “Nothing of note occurred during Urban’s pontificate.”

Huh – really? How could that be? The first few centuries of the Church were filled with persecution and ecclesial wrangling, doctrinal division and staying one step ahead of imperial anti-catholic law. Eight years of petrine service in the chaos of pre-Constaninian Rome, but “nothing of note?” Nothing worth commenting on? I picture the faithful adorning Urban’s earthly remains with an “I sat in the throne of St. Peter, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” covering before committing him to the catacombs.

I examined the Encyclopedia a bit further: Publication date, 1958; author, one Hans Kühner; publisher, The Philosophical Library out of New York. Ah, a secular treatment of papal history – I should’ve known. Maybe something a bit more Catholic could reveal some edifying tidbits about poor Urban I.

So I turned to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia and read E.G. Weltin’s brief treatment of Urban. I was glad to find that Weltin provides a few more details than Kühner, but not much. It seems that Pope Urban dealt with lingering dissension and Christological heresies, but these seemed to be already on the wane by the time he was ensconced. Plus, Weltin points out that Urban’s pontificate coincided with the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus “who was favorably disposed toward Christians,” so the Pope probably died in his sleep – not martyred like so many of his predecessors.

Further investigations didn’t prove all that fruitful. The time-honored 1912 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longish article on Pope Urban I by J.P. Kirsch, but little more in the way of solid facts. Kirsch provides context in terms of the controversies in play during Urban’s reign (namely those stirred up by the schismatic Hippolytus) and background on Emperor Alexander’s strikingly benign attitude toward Urban’s Church. Kirsch also reviews Pope Urban’s appearance in the legendary Acts of St. Cecilia and discusses various proposals regarding his burial location and associated inscriptions. Yet, even Mr. Kirsch has to conclude that “[n]othing is known concerning the personal labours of Pope Urban.”

In desperation, I even turned to Wikipedia, but the only additional info I came across there was that Urban I has a cameo in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Maybe the Kühner’s Encyclopedia of the Papacy is right after all.

Wrong. For although Kühner dismisses the business side of Urban’s papal tenure, he overlooks what we already know from the liturgy: Pope Urban I is a saint. And sanctification, as we all know from experience, is always noteworthy and hardly the stuff of insignificance. It’s the whole point of the Christian enterprise, and it’s, frankly, grueling – at least for most of us. It’s why we keep going to Mass and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is held up to us at Holy Communion. It’s why we strive to keep our disordered appetites in check and choose virtue over vice when it’s inconvenient, or even seemingly impossible. And it’s why we go to Confession, over and over again, surrendering our selfishness at the court of last resort – really, the court of only resort – and promise to try again.

No, Pope St. Urban I led a significant life, despite the historians’ inability to divine the details. He’s a saint, after all – a saint! To paraphrase Leon Bloy, becoming a saint is all that matters, but that “becoming” is wild – like a steeplechase in a puzzle in a whirling tumbler. And the vast majority of all that is interior – acts of conscience and intention and self-abandonment – so how could anybody keep track of anyone’s path to glory with all its hidden ups and downs?

So it will be for you and me should we realize, with God’s grace, the same heavenly prize as Pope Urban. Sure, he’s an obscure figure as far as the scholars are concerned, but can there be any doubt that he cares little about that now? Similarly, all those who’ll join him in Paradise won’t care a whit if their doings are recorded in a book – not even a single line. Nobody on earth will know about the extra prayers and fasting you undertook for your ailing grandma; nobody will know about the kindnesses you doled out on strangers in need; nobody will know when you didn’t do the wrong things you wanted to, nor right things you embraced when you were inclined otherwise. But God knows. God knows our doings, God knows our hearts, and that’s plenty. Indeed, it’s everything.

Oh, and if you do want to give Pope St. Urban I his due, consider marking his feast next May 25. I know I will be.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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The Pig Van: A Manifesto for Saints-To-Be

9 Nov

If everybody was satisfied with himself
there would be no heroes.
~ Mark Twain

For a time, my kids went to a Montessori school, and the curriculum included weekly trips to a working farm. They’d leave after lunch with their classmates, go help out with chores, and bringenrichment home vivid stories involving horses and chickens and mud – all joy and invaluable experience for my otherwise urban-bound children.

Due to work and other commitments, my wife and I were rarely able to assist with transportation on farm days, but we tried to compensate by lending the school an extra vehicle I’d picked up on the cheap. It was a rusty Plymouth Voyager that had about 240,000 miles on it, but it was roomy and it ran – and the teachers were willing to drive it. So, despite its condition and lack of A/C, that old blue van made the farm trip many times, and the students came to know its quirky personality.

And it acquired a nickname: “The Pig Van” – but not because of farm animals the students encountered on those trips. Instead, the nickname derived from a Léon Bloy quotation I’d laminated and plastered across the dashboard back when it was my primary vehicle:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

You might recognize it as an epigraph preceding John Irving’s wonderful story of sacrifice and salvation, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s certainly a provocative declaration, and for the Montessori farm-goers, it became a fruitful source of speculation, debate, and amusement: Heroes? Pigs? Christians? How are they all connected? Who was this Léon Bloy anyway, and what did he mean by his weird saying? And more to the point (here’s where the amusement came in), why did Mr. Becker glue it inside his dilapidated van?

That last question I can answer with certainty: It was originally supposed to be a punch in the gut every time I sat behind the wheel – a reminder of what I ought to be about, staring me in the face as I went about my daily routine. I’m not sure how Bloy (or Irving) meant it to be understood, but for me, that short sentence has always stuck with me as a pithy integration of Christianity’s two essentials.

The first is this: Lived Christianity is about heroism, and heroism, for leon-bloyChristians, is about aspiring to sanctity. Bloy made this point more directly in another, more famous line of his:

The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.

Sainthood, to be clear, isn’t about being a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes, pious prig. Nor is it about withdrawing from the world in order to avoid temptation. No, sainthood is about overcoming our selfish tendencies even in the midst of mixing it up with other people and the world, loving when it’s hard to love, giving when it’s easier not to, and, in general, choosing to do what holy people do, imitating their example, following their lead.

There’s no question that we can do this on our own, nor is it a question as to who is really behind it: it’s all God, all God, no question! It’s his work completely, though you wouldn’t think he’d do it so subtly – we’re barely aware of it when it happens. And when it does happen, it invariably happens on the barest margins of our interior selves – on the beaches and in the shallows that separate those parts of us wholly surrendered to him, and those parts of us still prone to slip away into moral oblivion. Are we tempted to gossip or envy? Then choosing not to indulge in them, especially when it would be easy to do so, is a triumph on our own moral margins – even if we fell prey to similar temptations later on.

This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward. When it’s all actually happening, we’re rarely conscious of it – and that’s by Design: so that we’ll be less likely to chalk it up to our own efforts.

Much safer is to follow St. Joan’s example as recorded in one of her heresy trials:

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’”

No presumption there, but instead, utter dependency. And, far from being an excuse for un-saintlike behavior, it’s a profound admission that aspiring to sanctity doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving sanctity. Let’s face it, more often than not, we fall way short. Daily even. Minute by minute. The important thing, however, is the aspiration itself, the not-giving-up. Christians have to want to be saJoan-of-arc21ints, and we must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ourselves in that regard, optimizing our availability to the saint-making influences that God brings to bear on us, and pressing ahead even after setbacks and failures.

And if we refuse? If we reject those influences and opportunities to grow in holiness? It only stalls out our progress on the heavenly trajectory, but we can expect God to hound us until we submit again. And again. And again.

One might ask, then, how we are still Christians when we’re stubbornly and persistently refusing God’s way? It’s in this regard that Bloy’s one-liner points to the second essential of the Faith, and it’s this: Not all Christians aspire to holiness all the time, but that doesn’t undo their fundamental Christian identity or destiny. Short of apostasy, when we Christians reject moral heroism and the pursuit of sanctity, we only make ourselves pig-like per Bloy’s characterization – grubbing around in the muck of sin and the world instead of holding out for more heavenly fare.

This is possible because Christian identity is only loosely associated with consistent righteous behavior – the Church is a hospital for sinners, after all, not a country club for saints. Instead of behaviors, Christian identity is more properly associated with a set of propositions, and Christians, by definition, are those who affirm that set of propositions, regardless of whether they act in line with them or not.

And what a set of propositions it is! Included are such fantastic ideas as the Incarnation (the Creator of the universe became a baby!), Good Friday (people got away with killing that incarnate God!), and the Resurrection (the dead God came back to life!). Also included are affirmations regarding the sacraments (we can eat that God-man, and share in his resurrected life!), the Church (God wants us to be part of his family, part of him!), and the communion of saints (there are all kinds of dead people in that family who are rooting for us and on our side!). This is all crazy talk, right? But one who claims allegiance to the Faith while denying these propositions can be legitimately challenged and rightly corrected.

Now, obviously, Christianity is more than simply affirming propositions, but it’s at least that, and it’s the starting point for all who wish to embrace it. Yes, we baptize babies who are in no position to affirm any propositional truths, but we o1FALOONRCIAnly do that because we as parents are, in a sense, affirming those truths on behalf of our children. And for adult converts? Affirming propositions is how we get to join the club. Remember these lines from the Easter Vigil?

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

That profession is the dividing line between not being a Catholic and being one, the set of words that we converts from other Christian traditions had to repeat in front of the whole parish – in front of the whole world really. As if to emphasize the solemnity of that moment, the profession is introduced by the presiding priest or bishop in this way:

I now invite you to come forward with your sponsors and in the presence of this community to profess the Catholic faith. In this faith you will be one with us for the first time at the eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus, the sign of the Church’s unity.

You see? The embrace and profession of a proposition precedes sacramental initiation. This is still the case for us old-timers, actually, and we face it every time we go up to receive Communion. When the priest or eucharistic minister holds up that wafer before our eyes and announces, “The Body of Christ,” we respond, “Amen” – our own acquiescence, in other words, that, yes, we believe it is God himself, right there in the minister’s hand. Remember, too, that we we are required to recite the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days – the very days that we are obligated to attend Mass.

So, we’re Christians, then, because of what we affirm and what we aspire to – not one or the other, but both. Frequently, our aspirations fall short of what we affirm, but we trust God to shepherd us back into the fold whenever we stray. And when our understanding of what we affirm itself is the problem? That, too, is matter of trust, and we have to rely on the Church to provide us with adequate catechesis and formation in order to fill the gaps.

Mostly, though, what we need is patience – patience with ourselves, first of all, and an acknowledgement that salvation is a journey that begins with baptism, but winds away from that point God knows how long. Yes, God knows, and we can bank on his giving us just enough time to make it.

st-jerome-and-lion-in-the-monastery-1509Patience extends as well to others, along with a camaraderie that is reflected in generosity and magnanimity, especially toward ones fellow believers. We Christians are all stumbling forward in our attempts to appropriate grace, aspire to sainthood, and live out what we affirm. The least we can do is shrug off the bumps and shoves that we give each other along the way.

That kind of patience takes courage – which brings me back to the Pig Van. It’s been many years since it made a farm run, and now it mainly sits idle, taking up space on the street. Since we don’t use it much any more, I tore out the Bloy quote, and pasted it inside my Honda – right above the quote from St. Jerome already on display there: “Cur timido animo Christianus es.” I know my Loeb edition translates it a bit different, but I like to read it as: “Why are you such a wimpy Christian?”

*Wham*! Another punch in the gut. Another reminder to keep going, no matter the odds, despite the obstacles and defeats, come what may.

Just like heroes do.

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A version of this essay 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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