Signs, Parables, and The Lord of the Rings

mapI’m reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time. I inwardly cringed when I wrote that, as I cringe whenever anyone asks me what I’m reading right now.

Despite his reputation among the beloved Inklings and many others I admire, I’ve always lumped Tolkien in with Dungeons and Dragons and Renaissance fairs, or at least with fanatical teenaged boys.

The Peter Jackson adaptations didn’t do much to convince me otherwise. They came out when I was in graduate school, and when I saw them I was unmoved. I realize now I was mostly uncomprehending—so much that gives the story its emotional heft is necessarily glossed over in whispers and asides—and distracted by the violence.

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The Sex Offender and the Cross

crucifixGuest post by Paul Luikart

One day the girl I loved called me up—out of the blue—and said, “We could really use some help out here. We’re short-staffed.” She lived and worked in Phoenix at a Catholic Worker house that served homeless people.

So I hopped on the first plane from my parents’ house in Northeastern Ohio to the edge of the Sonoran Desert, to a city I’d never visited before, in a state I’d never even seen. Into the heart of a subset of humanity I’d only ever glimpsed from behind the sneeze guard of the soup kitchen where I’d once served a meal at my parents’ church.

I wasn’t even Catholic. But I was in love.

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St. Francis and the Bloody-Nosed Friar

stfrancisStaying with friends in Silver Lake, Los Angeles for the holidays, I’ve taken to walking down the Micheltorena Street steps in the mornings, ten or fifteen minutes before Mass at eight o’clock. The steps wind down between the houses in the foothills, terminating at Sunset Boulevard. They are forlorn in the way of all empty places within busy cities.

Soon enough, I arrive at Saint Francis of Assisi Church on Golden Gate Avenue, just off Sunset. The church itself is a simple rectangular box of a structure, built of cheap bricks and concrete block. The only adornment is the stained glass: sharp, bold, minimal in a vaguely modernist way. The faces of the saints and biblical figures are rendered almost as cartoons.

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Death and the Absurdity of Heaven

image02I remember, as an undergraduate, reading Spinoza for the first time. I came across the sentence, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.” Spinoza meant, of course, that a free man never thinks about death.

But I managed to read the sentence in the opposite way. I took the phrase “nothing less” in the way you might say, “I want nothing less than the best cheesecake in the state.” I thought Spinoza was saying that the free man demanded the very best to think about. Death, obviously, tops that list.

I took it for granted that everyone thinks about death almost all of the time. On becoming a Catholic in my adulthood, I was excited by the prospect of joining the morbid parade of suffering souls trudging stolidly toward the grave, fingering our rosaries and muttering under our breath about the veil of tears.

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Seeing and Being the Face of Christ

jesus-face11The Catholic church I attend is lovely. A wine brick building with a copper steeple in the English Gothic style, it is not only a city landmark, but listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Perhaps it’s because of this pedigree that the sanctuary is maintained in a way that exudes warmth and welcome, but vigilantly avoids the cute, sentimental, or kitsch—the Christmas trees have no drug store baubles, the paschal lilies lack purple foiled pots, and the ambo is never hung with felt banners fashioned by kids.

This is why I was surprised to encounter a man-tall sandwich board in the nave last Sunday: white with large black letters—“Seeing the Face, Being the Face”—together with a line drawing of an androgynous cloaked head.

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