Because of Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) UPDATED

This was written three years ago by my (then) blogging partner, Webster Bull.  Given all the excitement about her cause for sainthood, I think it’s a good time to take a look at Dorothy Day not only from Webster’s viewpoint, but in her own words too.

So sit back, relax, and meet Dorothy Day (and Peter Maurin) and come to know why an encounter with her helps lead us to Christ.

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Today is the anniversary of the death of a great Catholic. A one-time radical, a sinner, a convert, a courageous pacifist (no, that is not an oxymoron), not yet a saint—she gets my vote for most compelling American Catholic of the 20th century. Her name? Dorothy Day. She died 29 (ed. 32) years ago today.

Let’s begin with three quotes: [Read more...]

For All the Saints: Ignatius of Antioch

This was originally written last year for the Feast of St. Ignatius. Now is a good time for a reprise of this post.

Two years ago I was reading and re-reading a book that brought me to the Catholic Church. As I wrote in my very first post, that book, My Life with the Saints by James Martin, S.J., reminded me of a central insight I first had in the fourth grade: The saints, revered by the Catholic Church and all but ignored by the Protestant churches of my youth, are a powerful witness for Christians today. But we have to pay attention to them.

So it occurred to me while out on a walk today, or what the Carthusians call my spatiamentum—where most of my best crackpot schemes occur—that I could do worse than devote a little time each day to learning more about the saints and, in particular, reflecting, as Fr. Jim does in his book, on how their stories are reflected in my life as a Catholic today.

This probably occurred to me because (a) I had just had a nap, usually the fount of my finest reflections and (b) before my nap, I had been reading the New Advent entry on today’s featured saint, Ignatius of Antioch. Truth be told, I know so little about most saints that New Advent is likely to be my first daily stop as this, my latest crackpot scheme unfolds. (I will do my best to credit my sources at the bottom of each one of these posts about the saints.)

Until today, I knew nothing about St. Ignatius of Antioch. Until today, I couldn’t even place Antioch on a map, and as for Ignatius, wasn’t he the founder of the Jesuits? Well, yes and no, but he is not that Ignatius.

Ignatius of Antioch was born about the year 35, “probably . . . in Syria of pagan parents, but the facts of his early life are largely unknown,” according to Lives of the Saints by Richard P. McBrien. But how much of a CV do you need when confronted with this one fact?—Ignatius of Antioch was, to the best of present-day knowledge, a follower, a student, a close personal associate of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. From that alpha point, his life moved toward its omega: being torn to pieces by lions in the Roman Colliseum. And pretty happily too, to judge by the reading in his honor from today’s Office, an excerpt from a letter he wrote while en route to Rome to be torn to pieces by lions:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

I mean, isn’t that just nuts? As Father Barnes noted last evening in a private conversation, and I can relate personally, we Americans are not big on martyrdom. With ironic symmetry, this morning’s mass was offered for an American serviceman who gave his life in the Middle East last year; Father’s homily and prayers noted that long-honored form of American martyrdom that the young serviceman represented; and for a recessional, Father Barnes led us in “God Bless America.”

Ignatius of Antioch was born about the year 35, or just about the time word was spreading northward from Jerusalem about events singular in human history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord. It may have been as much as a dozen years before persecutions in Judea would drive the Apostles out onto their respective trajectories of evangelization. St. John went north, and sometime, perhaps in the 50s or 60s, a young man named Ignatius encountered this man who had not only encountered Jesus Christ but was, by all accounts, the Apostle most beloved of Christ. From that encounter with an encounter, a martyr was born.

But—do me a favor and let me be ripped up by lions?! Isn’t this martyrdom itself an extraordinary testament to the sanctity of St. John, who late in life (when Ignatius was in the midst of his own manhood) was writing his Gospel, his epistles, and finally the Book of Revelation? What sort of light was St. John radiating that his follower could have been so convinced that the lions would make him “Christ’s pure bread”?

When I was in my 20s, I thought that a certain 20th-century mystic philosopher had been the most significant figure in modern memory. (I’d prefer to withhold further details; that sentence stands on its own.) I never met that mystic philosopher, who died two years before I was born—just as Christ is thought to have died two years before Ignatius came into the world. But as I have written previously, I did meet a man named Michel, who had literally been raised in the household of said mystic philosopher, and to me, in my 20s and 30s, Michel was, without question, the most compelling and convincing figure I had ever met. Through my encounters with Michel, who died when I was 40, I received a taste of what St. Ignatius must have seen and sensed in St. John: a faith founded in fact.

That St. Ignatius of Antioch could have met his death so joyously and with his eyes so open is all the testimony I think I’m going to need, at least for the rest of this day, to the exceptional series of events that occurred on this planet about two thousand years ago and still enliven us all today. I have Michel to thank for that understanding.

(Sources: New Advent entry on Ignatius of Antioch; Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints; The Liturgy of the Hours; and as always, with gratitude, James Martin, S.J., My Life with the Saints)

Question: What are the Most Common Misconceptions about Catholicism?

I have not been a very faithful contributor to this blog in recent months. I have blown hot and cold. The fact is, I’ve had other writing assignments, including a big book project I just finished. Now I am writing something else, and I need your help!

This Saturday, I am participating in an interfaith symposium at a nearby college, and I have been asked to wave the Catholic banner. Representatives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism will also be there, and each of us is to give a 20-minute talk about the core beliefs of our faith. This will be followed by a 90-minute Q&A; free-for-all.

I’m pretty clear on the core beliefs of the Catholic Church. There are two authoritative sources, one measuring 227 words (The Nicene Creed) and the other nearly 900 pages (The Catechism of the Catholic Church). Where I need your help is with a secondary question we’ve all been asked to answer:

What are some of the most common misconceptions of your faith and why are they mis-conceptions?

I have a few ideas of my own, but I would like nothing better than to read yours. And to use them this Saturday without permission!

So fire away. The comment box is yours.

To Convert, like Thérèse

I have friends, good Catholic friends, who seem to relish nothing more, especially after a couple of beers or in the case of our men’s group while chomping coffee and donuts, than to bemoan the pitiful state of contemporary culture. You know the litany. A conservative Catholic cultural critique can be merciless. (A liberal Catholic cultural critique is an oxymoron.)

I’m pretty sure now, after nearly three years a Catholic, that all such criticism is worthless.

The idea is that “the world”—the cold godless culture of death—is in sore need of conversion. This may be true; no doubt it is true. But there is little point, or honesty, in converting the world before I convert myself. Whether I’m a cradle Catholic, a convert, or a non-Catholic in discernment, what I have to do is to come myself to a conversion.

Conversion to me means turning myself completely and radically toward God, toward Jesus Christ. If I am a layperson, a husband and father, as I am, this does not mean turning away from my life commitments, from my vow of marriage, from my responsibility to provide for my family; it means to turn and open my heart continually, repeatedly, insistently to the love of God and to the presence of his Son, Jesus Christ, in my life. And to let that presence shine into my marriage, my family, my life of work.

Every serious Catholic must have a friend like my friend “Mike,” a born-Catholic guy who has turned himself away from the Church and therefore from the presence of Christ. Armed with “good reasons,” ready to take aim at every slightest failing of the Church, Mike has closed a door in his mind and will not give himself permission to open it again. What am I going to do with Mike?

My first impulse is to argue with him, to prove him wrong, to get Mike to come back, to convert. But to my continuing surprise I have found that my presence does not have the effect of, say,  St. John Vianney or Mother Teresa, and all of my frontal attacks on Mike gain nothing, except Mike’s resentment. Mike’s back, when up, is immovable.

And all the time I am assuming that there’s something wrong with Mike, that I must change Mike.

I must change myself.

I’m pretty sure that if I were St. John Vianney or Mother Teresa, Mike would melt. To be in the presence of either of these saintly people must have been like being in the company of Christ. In fact, that’s probably exactly what it was. How do you explain the conversion of much of the Mediterranean basin in the century after Christ’s death? A whole lot of souls on fire.

Why is my presence any different? Why am I lukewarm? Because I am seldom in Christ’s company. I seldom think of Him. I think of Mike, though, plenty, and how far he is from Christ.

At times like these, I find that nothing works for me better than reading the saints—turning to those men and women who turned themselves so wholly to Christ. And who better to turn to than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known in her French religious life by the name  Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus de la Sainte Face—Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face—wow, what a name! (That’s her holy card at the top of this post.)

At the age of thirteen, already thirteen years baptized, Thérèse experienced what she called “a complete conversion.” 

God,” she wrote, “worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant.” Out of that conversion grew her “Little Way,” an endless rosary of little deeds of love and devotion, performed with her heart turned totally to God.

“I see that it is enough,” she wrote, ”to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.”

About the time of her “complete conversion,” at about age thirteen, she wrote:

“I didn’t have, as did the other students, any teacher with whom I was on friendly terms and could spend several hours. I was content, therefore, to greet the one in charge, and then go and work in silence until the end of the lesson. No one paid any attention to me, and I would go up to the choir of the chapel and remain before the Blessed Sacrament until the moment when Papa came to get me. This was my only consolation, for was not Jesus my only Friend? I knew how to speak only to Him; conversations with creatures, even pious conversations, fatigued my soul. I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations!”

With only one Friend, with only one Person with whom she could speak, Thérèse’s heart was turned totally toward Christ. I’m willing to bet that she would melt Mike if they met today. All I want to do is change him.

This post was written after some reflection on the introduction to “Living is the Memory of Me,” a recent talk by Fr. Julián Carrón to the Assembly of Responsibles of Communion and Liberation. You can find a link to it at the CL home page.

To Listen to Stephen Foster (Music for Monday)

-Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

I’ve written about Pandora Radio before. Through Pandora, an internet service that allows you to create your own radio stations, I learned about Olabelle, now one of my All-Time Favorite Groups.

So, I was listening to an Ollabelle-heavy station on Pandora a few weeks back when I heard the unmistakable sound of Ollabelle singing a song I had never heard, “Gentle Annie,” by Stephen Foster (left). That set me on a hard search for the Ollabelle album containing that song. And there is no such thing.

It turns out that a 2005 Grammy was won by an absolutely gorgeous album of Stephen Foster music titled “Beautiful Dreamer” and put together by an enterprising group called American Roots Publishing. It offers arrangements of Foster songs by a host of contemporary artists, from Ollabelle to Roger McGuinn, formerly “Jim” McGuinn of my Truly-All-Time Favorite Group, the Byrds. You can order the Foster collection here, and I recommend that you do so.

I couldn’t find many cuts from this album on YouTube, but I thought I would share a few Stephen Foster songs anyway. Though no Catholic, Foster (1826–1864) was our first great writer of American songs. And I think you’ll agree that his concerns, though they sound dated to “sophisticated” 21st-century ears, were really our concerns.

While I couldn’t find Ollabelle singing “Gentle Annie,” YouTube has a cut of the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna, singing the tune about a loved one who has died: “Shall I nevermore behold thee?”

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Here’s one cut from the “Beautiful Dreamer” collection that did make it to YouTube, a gorgeous collaboration of singer Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, and other instrumentalists. It’s a lullaby that sings, “Pray that the angels will shield thee from harm”:

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More uptempo, here’s Johnny Cash’s version of another Foster favorite, “Camptown Races,” from the Bell Telephone Hour, videotaped only 51 years ago in 1959:

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And here’s a cut from the album—the American country band BR549 singing “Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai”—with a Krazy video accompaniment!

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Just to show how “contempo” Stephen Foster is, here’s another tune (not from the album) offered by a quartet you may have heard of.

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Finally, here’s my favorite tune from the album, though not sung by Mavis Staples, as on the CD. Here it’s sung by the McGarrigle sisters again with (among others) Kate’s son, Rufus Wainwright. It’s a song Job could have sung, “Hard Times Come Again No More”:

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For All the Saints: Thérèse of Lisieux

I have been wrestling with the angel named Vocation. In August, my wife and I sold our small publishing business, and just this week I completed all but the proofreading for the biggest writing project I’ve ever tackled. Meanwhile, Katie and both of our daughters are on the first steppingstones of new life paths. For our entire family, the future is an open book. The only thing I know is, I have to work.

Yes, sadly the publishing business did not (never did) reap much of a profit. Selling it was not a lucrative deal. So I will have to continue tending the bread ovens, mixing the dough, stoking the hardwood fires. The only thing that has become clear, or seems to have, is that I will work not as a literal baker, but as a writer.

You might think that, as someone halfway to age 118, I should have solved the vocation question for myself long ago. But my favorite nonfiction writer, Norman Maclean, saw it differently in the epigraph to his book Young Men and Fire, and so do I.

As I get considerably beyond the biblical allotment of three score years and ten, Maclean wrote, I feel with increasing intensity that I can express my gratitude for still being around on the oxygen-side of the earth’s crust only by not standing pat on what I have hitherto known and loved. While the oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if compassion is a form of love.

Not standing pat. New things to love. Compassion is a form of love. Maclean (left) also wrote:

The problem of identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.

Fortunately, several enticing and/or well-paying projects loom ahead of me like islands in the fog. Today, I am going to a meeting about the most enticing of these options, so far anyway. Last week, looking ahead to my meeting today, I thought, “October 1. Let’s see whose day that is,” as in which saint. My heart grew instantly warmer inside my chest when I flipped the page on my Catholic desk calendar and saw that it is Thérèse’s day. Something about it seemed so right, so apropos. I felt safe, provided for. I immediately began saying a novena to Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

Stumbling back into this blog last night, like not just the Prodigal Son but the Prodigal Father, I find that Frank has beat me to the St. Thérèse punch, and if there were ever a lousy, mixed metaphor, that has to be it. But then in the short century-plus since she left this earth and began showering us with flowers, people have never tired of writing about her, a Doctor of the Church with one slim book to her credit.

What struck me this morning and prompted this post was the selection from that slim book, her Story of a Soul, in today’s office of readings. Thérese wrestled with Vocation as well! Of course, she called this process a “longing for martyrdom,” which are words that have not yet fallen from my lips and aren’t likely to this side of the barroom door:

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of Saint Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the first epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will now show you the way which surpasses all the others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind. . . .

I have not yet found peace of mind. But I have a new prayer to steady my mind, a prayer to the Little Flower.

Thanks to “Parker’s Back” (I’m Back)

Today I had to laugh. A reader e-mailed to ask if I was dead. No, I am not dead. That e-mail was the match that lit this post, but Flannery O’Connor was the fuel. Her short story “Parker’s Back,” since I read it over the weekend, like an icon lit by freaky candles, has haunted me. It explains why “Why I Am Catholic” can never be answered satisfactorily. And “Why I Can’t Escape Being Catholic” is an even more compelling question.

Short capsule bio: Flannery O’Connor (above), Southern Catholic woman writer, lived with her mother on a dairy farm, raised peahens, wrote two novels, a passel of short stories, a few essays, many lovely letters, died of lupus at 39.

Synopsis: O. E. Parker, a marginal, all-but-no-good cracker like many O’Connor characters, has a body covered with tattoos, everywhere but his back; falls for a woman whose appeal is inexplicable, she being skinny, cantankerous, unlike the soft, round, pliant, numerous women he has known before. Funniest passage in the whole story illustrates her mysterious appeal:

As he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her. (Paragraph break) They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous. 

Have you ever fallen in love with someone this way? Is this not how all of us (at least us converts) fall in love with the Church? She is unlike any woman we’ve known, and for all that, magnetic and forceful as the daylights.

Synopsis resumed: Once married, Parker becomes gloomy, Sarah Ruth becomes pregnant. One day, Parker crashes his tractor into a tree which goes up in flames like a great burning cross, he goes straight to the tattoo parlor, asks for “the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” won’t settle for anything less than Jesus. As he flips through the book, this image seems to speak to him:

. . . the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture. 

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said.

It’ll cost you nothing less than everything. Synopsis concluded: Parker goes crawling back to Sarah Ruth (great Old Testament name, no?) and to gain entry to their home, he must whisper his real name through the keyhole: Obadiah Elihue. She takes one look at the Christ on his back and growls, “Another picture. I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

But it’s God! Parker moans. God! “No,” she says, “God don’t look like that. He don’t look. He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She drives him out of the house, screaming that he is an idolator and beating him over the back with her broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”

Our last glimpse of Parker, and Sarah Ruth’s, finds him leaning against the one tree in their yard (another tree!). He is “crying like a baby.”

I don’t know why this story haunts me so. In the past four days, I have read it three times, started reading it aloud to Katie, told two good friends about it . . . Is it that, for the Catholic, Christ can become much more than a “spirit,” a wondrous figure from history who did nice things and taught us to be nice? Is it that, by the time faith begins whacking you with its broom and raising welts, Christ is real, not real like an idol, real like a person, present, here, now. One that follows you everywhere, standing behind you, adding His gaze to yours, a gaze so powerful it dries your throat and has the power to burn right through you?

There’s much left to ponder here—while waiting for my death, rumors of which have been exaggerated.

Because Going to Mass Can Be Like Yoga Class

Guest post by Marian R. Bull
I woke up from one of those blissful, healing naps that I most love about summer Sundays, opened my e-mail, and got the joyful surprise of my life—a guest post from my daughter. Here it is.

This morning, I was lucky enough to find myself in the beautiful Cathedral of the Holy Name in downtown Chicago. A newly converted Catholic, I still sometimes find myself peering around in my peripheral vision at certain parts of the Mass, thinking, “Should my head be bowed right now? But that guy two pews up is looking straight at the priest. . . . ” I’ve got the hang of it by now, but I still need some help from my fellow parishioners. And I’m okay with it.

Today, while contemplating the bald, bowed head next to me, I was reminded of a recent article I read about what to expect from your first yoga class. One of the headers read, “You won’t have a clue what to do. And that’s okay.” I got to thinking about the ways that yoga classes and Masses make us appear, and the way they make us feel, and the beauty inherent in each experience. (I would like to make clear that I don’t go to yoga to hear the Word of God, and I don’t attend Mass to increase my flexibility. But both are important, though not equally so, and fill distinct needs in my life.)

When I first started attending mass, I felt a bit silly. I felt love for—and from—God, and I felt fulfilled, but I also felt a bit lost in what my RCIA sponsor tenderly called “Catholic aerobics.” But I soldiered on and got accustomed to the bowing and the kneeling, and I found that it gave my prayers, both silent and recited, more intention and meaning. I also realized that not everyone was staring at me thinking, “That girl’s head wasn’t bowed at the right time. What a silly little neophyte!!” We were all there to worship, to connect with the Holy Trinity on both a personal and a congregational level. What mattered was that I was coming together with others, each on our own spiritual path, each with a love for this amazing Church. And honestly, the more the merrier, right?

Yoga class is a bit the same way. Sure, the upper-class mothers are in overpriced yoga clothes rather than their Sunday best, and the “aerobics” look a bit different, but in the end, we are all there to find something: a workout, a mind-body connection, an escape from our busy days. And in yoga, as at Mass, once I stopped worrying about being “worse” than my peers or looking silly, what I gained from my practice increased exponentially. I focused more on my physical and mental intentions, and I felt more fulfilled after each class. I didn’t necessarily find Jesus, but I did find peace. And maybe a little bit of the Holy Spirit, too.

So why does it matter that these things are similar? For me, it’s about two things: shutting up the voices in my head worried about seeming clueless, and letting myself find peace and meaning through an individual, yet shared, experience. I love quietly murmuring “Namaste” to my fellow yogis just as I love enthusiastically saying “Peace be with you!!!” to complete strangers at Mass. (Sorry, Bald Guy Next To Me, I may be overly enthusiastic, but I’m just super psyched about sharing my love for Jesus with you.)

Once you stop worrying, you remember why you’re really there. And you actually have time to pray. And breathe. And listen to the word of God (or, in the case of yoga, to your thoughts and your body). And smile. Because, isn’t it awesome??

One last vignette. I am very blessed that I have a boyfriend who has occasionally attended mass with me. (Neither of us was raised in the Catholic church.) And honestly, how well he knows the liturgy and all of its aerobics is about as important to me as what color shirt he wears. His company makes the Mass even more meaningful: sharing the experience of connecting with God is simply beautiful. I am also lucky that he has been open-minded enough to come to yoga with me. I’ve got to admit, in his first class, he looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. And just like the article said, it didn’t matter. Because as we walked out, he looked at me, and smiled, and said, “I haven’t felt like this since the last time we left Mass.”

For All the Saints: Monica

Prayer works, especially the prayer of a parent for a child. That is the vital message of St. Monica. Monica is a later Mary. I revere her because, through her prayer, her son Augustine converted and became a Doctor of the Church. I revere Mary because, through her “yes”, she gave us Jesus and brings us to Him. I could learn something about parenting from Monica and Mary, but then I already have Joan of Beverly.

It is no secret among her friends or in our parish that Joan of Beverly faces serious health challenges, so I am not violating any confidences here. Tomorrow morning, in fact, a Mass will be said for her at our parish church—an unusual measure for a living person, but then Joan is an unusual lady. A cancer that began in her lungs and was apparently cured has metastasized and created a few small tumors on the back of her brain. She is courageously undergoing radiation treatment which has left her sapped for energy and looking remarkably like the stylish, short-haired and famously skinny model Twiggy, of 1960s fame. Joan is old enough to remember Twiggy.

What’s remarkable about Joan, as it is about Monica, is that in her affliction Joan has been praying for her friends and especially for her family. Joan has a large family—seven children, God knows how many grandchildren, maybe seven great-grandchildren, though I’m not sure of that either—and her prayers for her family are working. Joan does not tell me all the details—that would be a violation of confidence; and I won’t tell you any—ditto. But sitting with Joan in her living room and hearing her stories is like being thrown backward 17 centuries and listening to Monica.

Like Catholic parents anywhere, I suppose, Joan has always prayed for her children. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer nearly two years ago, she told me that she had been praying for reconciliation among certain members of her family and that, because of her sudden illness, that reconciliation was coming about. She laughed a great toothy Joan laugh and said, “I didn’t know the Lord would use my illness to bring this about, but he did!” She thought nothing of her illness, everything of His answer to her prayers.

Today’s reading from the Office is Augustine’s account of his last days with his mother. Monica told Augustine, “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect . . . ”

Joan is not yet at this stage. She loves life, perhaps more than ever. I saw her at Mass last Sunday, and I was looking at the happiest face I could imagine. After Mass, many friends crowded around her and you would have thought Joan was a child at Disneyworld, surrounded by Mickey, Minnie, Snow White, and all seven dwarfs. I have never seen her happier. 

Why would she be so happy, facing a life-threatening illness like brain cancer? Because now again Joan is praying that God may lavish gifts on her children, and again He is doing so. Tomorrow, I’m sure many friends of Joan will gather at the 7 a.m. Mass to pray that God will continue to lavish his gifts on her.

St. Monica, pray for us all.

Because I Awoke from a Long, Bad Dream

For a long time I was mystified by several friends of mine. Each was born and raised Catholic, then fell away from the Church in their late teens or early adulthood. What could have caused this, I wondered? I was often critical of these friends. How could they not see the beauty of the Church they were born into? Then I realized that the same thing had happened to me.

I used to refer to my boarding-school years as the best educational experience of my life. Now, I see them differently: as the beginning of a nightmare from which I am only now waking up. When I went off to school at the ridiculously unformed age of fifteen, I was like some of my raised-Catholic friends; I was a devout little Episcopalian altar boy. I am not being ironic. I loved serving at the altar, and during those mid-teen years I even thought seriously about becoming an Episcopal minister. Dear old Dr. Bassage, the revered senior minister at our church, had written my recommendation for boarding school, and I could see little better in life than to follow in his path.

Then I went away to school. Things happened there that I am still trying to sort out, but the end result was that three years later, I graduated a self-satisfied agnostic liberal railing against my father because he supported the war in Vietnam. I was destined not to return to church, as a regular devotion, for nearly 40 years. By then, my father was my best male friend.

What happened when I went away to school? I succumbed to the tyranny of my peers. While the school faculty was supposed to act in loco parentis, there was little in the way of authentic adult authority, except for “Dean Bob,” who threatened punishments from “restricts” to the ax. Our dorm master during my first two years was ridiculed by every student who lived on the floors he supposedly ruled; during senior year, I lived in a house where the benign master, beloved by the fifteen of us who lived above his ground-floor quarters, blithely ignored the odd, smoky odors emanating from upstairs. The school minister, known with genuine affection as “The Rev,” was the closest thing we had to a spiritual authority, but the times being what they were, his message had to be so rounded off at the corners, for reasons of ecumenism, that it had little edge. I do not remember much talk of Jesus Christ.

My peers taught me how to be an adult. A fifteen-year-old kid who was just learning to shave showed up at a dorm one day and, for purposes of survival, quickly kowtowed to the common mentality of the “buttroom” (where we smoked), the classroom, and the athletic field. The central characteristic of that mentality was a deep cynicism about all forms of authority, combined with an absurd self-satisfaction that was only punctured when, as occasionally happened, someone got seriously sick or injured, or a friend threatened suicide.

I ask myself how I could possibly have given up so completely my Christian faith, and the only answer I can come up with is this tyranny. To survive socially, to be accepted, and probably to counteract unspoken feelings of homesickness, I fell asleep to my real needs, my real nature. And so began a long, bad dream.

By the time I became a Catholic 30 months ago, I had sent my two children to boarding school. I make no judgment about them here; they are bright, successful, happy young adults, and each is following her own sincere spiritual journey, one of which has led to the Catholic Church. But if I saw the world as I do now when my wife and I faced the decision of where to send our daughters to high school, I would have thought twice about it.

I am a Catholic today because I finally awoke from that experience. What wakes a person up? Not himself. An alarm clock, maybe? I think the Church would call it grace.


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