To See My Life as a Chapter in God’s Story

“The universe is a story,” writes Peter Kreeft in Catholic Christianity. “God is its Author.” I read that line this morning while marveling at the way my life changes when I see it this way. From where I was sitting, at the Starbucks on Route 62, it seemed that I have a simple choice: let my life be driven by the schedule entered in the iCalendar on the iPhone in my iPocket—or let God drive my life.

To do the latter, it seems that I have to begin by realizing that (a) God created the universe, (b) he has a plan, and (c) if I just open my eyes I may see my life fitting that plan, instead of marching lockstep through the events in a day preordained by iCal.

My day got off to a late start. I was up at 6:15, and I could see that the readings I had promised myself each morning would not get done if I followed my usual routine that usually begins closer to 5:00. Today, that routine would have taken me from sadly shortened readings to Mass to my office across from church. From somewhere came the thought: No Mass for you today, Buster. Instead, start your readings here, then go out for coffee and finish your readings before going to the office. But where for coffee? Here the Holy Spirit, possibly disguised as guilt, came into play: If I go to the usual coffee spot across from the office (hence, next to church), friends like Ferde coming out of Mass will see me and think: No Mass for you today, Buster? Eh, what?!

So, Starbucks, and the closest Starbucks to my house, which is not anywhere near my usual orbit. I walked into the Route 62 Starbucks, two miles from home, with Peter Kreeft’s book under my arm and walked smack into an old friend, whom I will call Billy.

Now, my first reaction, as yours might have been was, Drat! I came here to finish my readings and now I have to socialize with Billy?! I don’t think so. So while Billy collected his coffee order ahead of me in line, I traded the minimum necessary number of social syllables with him, then bid him farewell as he turned out of the line and I waited for my Grande Pike’s, the Featured Coffee of the Day.

Problem was, Billy didn’t leave Starbucks. He sat at a prominent table by the window, and I now thought I faced a choice: Sit at another table with my book and effectively reject Billy, or walk out and find another place to do My Readings.

Then a third possibility occurred to me: Maybe the Holy Spirit put me in Starbucks at just this moment not to do My Readings but to be with Billy. So I sat with Billy for 20 minutes, and the result was a little miracle.

I happen to know that Billy was raised Catholic but does not practice anymore. Instead, like me some years ago, he has been on an alternative spiritual journey. He is, let me say this clearly, a very very good man.

Billy was reading a book about art (he is a painter), but quickly closed it and turned it face down on the table when I approached. I pointedly put the Kreeft book down on the table, face up: Catholic Christianity. In a fascinating bit of body language, Billy glanced at my book and then, in a single motion, threw the napkin in his hand on top of the art book, making it impossible for me to read the title. He did not comment on my book in the entire 20-minute conversation.

For the first 18 minutes, we expanded our list of socially prescribed syllables, then began to inquire sincerely about each other’s lives, works, health, and so on. I did my best to express my sincere affection for Billy and to listen carefully as he told me about developments in his world. As the conversation progressed, the expression on his face softened, then began to positively shine, moving from something like wariness (I might even say fear) to an open enjoyment of our encounter.

Finally, at minute 19, Billy took a glance at my book (still not mentioning it) and told me about another book that had moved him. It was probably my face that softened as he described the book to me. By Josef Pieper (left), a 20th-century Catholic theologian and scholar on the works of Thomas Aquinas, it is The Four Cardinal Virtues. Billy’s face was radiant as he explained the book to me. He said it takes the four virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude to a whole new level of understanding—that temperance, for example, is not just drinking or eating less, but an entirely different way of relating to life and the universe.

I expressed interest, and Billy said I could probably find the book at alibris or abebooks or another on-line site. I said that I was trying to avoid buying books (“I have more unread books in my home than I can read in the rest of my earthly life,” I said) and Billy said that, while his copy of The Four Cardinal Virtues was heavily underlined, he would be happy to loan it to me, “if you don’t mind the underlining.”

Didn’t mind at all, I said, and so Billy agreed to pull the book off his shelf and drop it by my office sometime this week—through the mail slot if I happen to be out. Billy left Starbucks and I stayed behind to read a few pages of Kreeft.

I hope this encounter will result in further adventures with Billy, and maybe even Catholic adventures for Billy. But whatever comes of this story, believing that it is God’s story and not my own gives it a meaning—gives my entire life a meaning—that it could not have if each of my days were only a page out of iCal.

A Prayer by Thomas More (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I have written before about Thomas More, and he remains one of the reasons I am a Catholic today. A Man for All Seasons was an early influence, and I still play the video (old VHS format) regularly. When I was in RCIA in the fall of 2007, I went to a lawyer’s funeral and received a Thomas More prayer card, which I still treasure. On it was a short version of the so-called “Lawyer’s Prayer” below.

Consider that More wrote the following prayer while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting his execution. “To lean into the comfort of God.” I particularly like that phrase: 

Give me the grace, Good Lord,
To set the world at naught. To set the mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men’s mouths.

To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.

Not to long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.

Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God. Busily to labor to love Him.

To know my own vileness and wretchedness. To humble myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.

Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.

To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.

To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.

To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.

Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.

To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.

These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.


For All the Saints: Clare of Assisi

When I was nineteen I stood before what seemed to be the incorrupt body of St. Clare in the crypt of the basilica in Assisi bearing her name. Her body was covered only with a thin gauzy veil, and it looked whole to me. Now, I gather, it is no longer deemed to be incorrupt. But the impression, and the inspiration, have not gone away.

I was on a year off from college, seeing the world on a Eurail pass. (For three months, and $95, you got to sleep upright and vibrating anywhere in Europe.) I was neither a Catholic nor a practicing Christian, having left the Episcopal church-going of my youth in the rearview mirror. My companions and I pulled into Assisi one morning and soon found ourselves—stiff of back, sleepy of eye, and for all that dumbfounded—in front of the body of a woman who had died over 700 years before. It is still one of only two or three indelible impressions from those three months on the railroad.

This morning’s reading from the Office, for the memorial of St. Clare, has a striking image. In a letter from Clare to Blessed Agnes of Prague, the saint writes of Christ as an unclouded mirror: “For he is the splendor of eternal glory, the brightness of eternal light, and the mirror without cloud.”

Queen and bride of Jesus Christ, look into that mirror daily and study well your reflection, that you may adorn yourself, mind and body, with an enveloping garment of every virtue, and thus find yourself attired in flowers and gowns befitting the daughter and most chaste bride of the king on high. In this mirror blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable love are also reflected. With the grace of God the whole mirror will be your source of contemplation. . . . 

It strikes me now that the body of St. Clare was a mirror for me too: a view into what lasts and doesn’t. In the sanctity of Francis’s friend is an image of what I can be, and in her body, not so incorrupt after all, is what my body will be soon enough. Looking at St. Clare lying in her crypt was like being suspended between heaven and earth.

Because I Want Original Cream of Wheat, Not Quick or Instant

My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Cream of Wheat Company, which began in the midst of an economic depression in 1892. George Bull was a wheat farmer in Grand Forks, ND, who used some old milling equipment to create a form of porridge from refined middlings, the best part of the wheat. He sent a case of the stuff stamped “Cream of Wheat” to his broker in New York along with a carload of wheat, and the agent wired back:

“Forget wheat. Can’t sell. Send carload Cream of Wheat.” An American brand was born.

When I was a child outside Minneapolis–St. Paul, my dad was vice-president, then president of Cream of Wheat, following in the footsteps of his own father and grandfather. (The company had long since moved to this milling center on the Mississippi.) As son of an officer of the company, I had to eat a lot of Cream of Wheat, lumps and all. I also served as an unofficial beta tester of Quick and Instant and even some weirdly flavored experimental varieties of Cream of Wheat, as the firm struggled to expand its product line and escape its fate as a one-trick pony. It never did so. In 1961, CW was sold to Nabisco and we followed Dad’s career to the New York area.

Sticking to my ribs today is not only the residue of a carload of Cream of Wheat swallowed in childhood but also a conviction that there are things that are more real than others, more original, closer to the source: “original Cream of Wheat,” from the heart of the grain.

This helps explain why I am a Catholic today.

This weekend, on vacation up country, I had a chance to attend two church services in succession: Catholic mass celebrated by a priest followed by an ecumenical Protestant-ish service led by a barefoot minister.

Let me be fair: The pastor in question is the soul of kindness, compassion, and ecumenism. She talked at length of the accidental burning of a religious building in a nearby town, and urged our prayers. She gathered six children into her lap and shared her love and kindness, with a bit of old time religion. She chose her own reading, from Revelation, which did not mention Jesus, and developed the theme beautifully in a fifteen-minute sermon that had everyone nodding their heads and mmm-mmming along. It was a moving community experience and occasionally powerful theater.

It was also a pale shadow of something else, something original, something we know as the liturgy. There was a cross without corpus on the table, a table that filled in for an altar, where the bread, wine, and grape juice were laid out for a symbolic “communion.” Behind the table stood the choir and behind the choir was a mural of a mountain scene. On the surrounding walls was not one image or symbol of Christian worship. At one point (can’t say exactly when) we said the Lord’s Prayer, the common denominator of all Christian worship, but everything else was improvised, everything to me was like Quick or Instant, even if it took longer than Father Tom’s full-length Sunday Mass at the bottom of the mountain. 

I am no final judge of such things, as our Protestant readers are sure to remind me, but I do know my cereal. This may have been cereal, but I can promise you it was not Original Cream of Wheat.

As Flannery O’Connor said famously of the Eucharist, “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”

For All the Saints: Edith Stein


Guest Post by William “Mac” McCarthy
My dormitory neighbor from 40+ years ago, who posted on 
the Martyrs of Compiègne in July, is back with some powerful material on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born to a Jewish family and still widely known by her given name of Edith Stein. I’ll pass along the material just as Mac sent it to me—only lacking his careful footnoting. There’s a lot here for reflection and inspiration:

“We are travelling East,” Last Letters from a Martyr

St. Edith Stein, 1891-1942, feast day August 9, also called Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, brilliant German philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun . . .The Nazis killed her at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, for being a Jew. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and named Patroness of Europe along with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden in 1999.

The walls of our monasteries enclose a narrow space. To erect the structure of holiness in it, one must dig deep and build high, must descend into the depths of the dark night of one’s own nothingness in order to be raised up high into the sunlight of divine love and compassion.

Not every century produces a work of reform as powerful as that of our Holy Mother (Saint Teresa of Avila, 16th century). Nor does every age give us a reign of terror during which we have the opportunity to lay our heads on the executioner’s block for our faith and for the ideal of our Order as did the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne [martyred at the Paris guillotine, July 17, 1794]. But all who enter Carmel must give themselves wholly to the Lord. Only one who values her little place in the choir before the tabernacle more highly than all the splendor of the world can live here, can then truly find a joy that no worldly splendor has to offer.”—Edith Stein, Laetare Sunday, March 31, 1935

Seven years after she wrote those words, Edith Stein had to “leave her little place in the choir before the tabernacle” to ride away with two S.S. officers. A week later, she was put into a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish family. She was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (Prussia), now Wroclaw, Poland. Her father was a lumber merchant who died before her second birthday. Her mother, Auguste Stein, a strong woman, took over the business and it prospered. Throughout her life, Edith remained a devoted daughter, beloved sister and favorite aunt.

Highly intelligent, Stein earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy, summa cum laude, at the University of Freiburg in 1916 under Edmund Husserl. Husserl was the founder of phenomenology, an analytical approach to human consciousness. Husserl considered Stein his best doctoral student, and she was his personal assistant for a time. Her own original research and writing in the field was cited by well known scholars, such as Max Scheler. Largely because she was a woman, Stein was unable to obtain a position as a university professor. Nevertheless, she remained an active and influential philosopher all her life. Her later scholarly writing focused on knowledge and faith.

In 1921, during a summer stay at the home of some philosopher friends, Stein picked up and read the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582, Spanish mystic, founder of the Order of Carmelites Discalced, and Doctor of the Church). Stein was profoundly moved by St. Teresa’s message that the search for God is no mere intellectual exercise but rather a relationship of love and complete surrender. After studying Catholic teachings in the catechism and the missal, she was baptized on January 1, 1922.

From 1923 until 1931, Stein taught and lived at the secondary school and Catholic teachers’ college of the Dominican Sisters in Speyer, Germany. Then she taught at the Pedagogical Institute in Munster until 1933. In those years she translated works by John Henry Cardinal Newman and Saint Thomas Aquinas into German. It was said she could read and understand Latin just as quickly as she could German.

She also spoke to women’s groups all over Germany about the role of women in modern society. Stein was convinced that the challenges women faced in the professional world were best addressed by spiritual and intellectual reflection. Her message was grounded in the power of faith. She was an unpretentious, but captivating speaker.

Like the saint who had inspired her conversion, Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein had a natural, warmhearted amiability. The abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Beuron, who was her spiritual director in the years before she entered Carmel, described her as follows:

“I have seldom met a person in whom so many and so laudable characteristics were united. At the same time, she remained entirely a woman with tender and almost motherly sensitivities. Mystically gifted, she was unpretentious with simple people, scholarly with scholars, a seeker with seekers, l would almost say a sinner with sinners.”

In 1933, Stein lost her teaching position in Munster. Hitler and the National Socialist Party had forbidden Jews to teach. On October 14, 1933, she entered the Carmel in Cologne. She had long desired to enter the Carmelite Oder, but previously put off such a step, largely out of consideration for her elderly orthodox Jewish mother, who would be crushed by a separation from her daughter. Now, her options were Carmel or emigration. That year, she wrote, “There’s nothing to regret about the fact that I can’t continue to lecture. To me a great and merciful Providence seems to be standing behind it all.” Dr. Edith Stein became Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce—Teresa Blessed by the Cross.

After the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938, there was no avoiding the danger from the Nazis. Edith Stein worried that she was endangering the lives of her fellow sisters in Cologne. She was granted permission to transfer to the Carmel in the village of Echt in the Netherlands and arrived there on December 31, 1938. Her older sister, Rosa, who had converted to Catholicism in 1936, joined her there in July of 1939. Rosa lived in a guest room. She served as the portress for the convent and then as an extern sister who had contact with the outside world.

“Rosa, come, we are going for our people.”—Edith Stein to her sister, at the front gate of Carmel Echt, shortly after 5:00 in the afternoon, Sunday, August 2, 1942

In the early 1940’s, Father Jan Nota was a young Dutch Jesuit scholar assigned by his superiors to help Edith Stein ready her book, Finite and Eternal Being, for publication. It had been previously set for publication in Germany in 1936, but anti-Jewish laws had prevented that. His last visit with her provides a happy glimpse of Edith Stein only twenty-four days before her death:

I saw Edith Stein for the last time on July 16, 1942. That is the day the Carmelite Order celebrates as its patronal feast, “Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” in commemoration of the first Carmelite friars who, back in the thirteenth century, established their life of prayer in the mountains near Haifa. When I arrived at the convent (Carmel Echt), Edith Stein asked me to deliver a homily at the Holy Hour. I felt a little nervous, having never preached in public since my ordination, but Edith Stein directed me to some beautiful Scripture texts found in the Carmelite Office and helped me to put the sermon together. In fact, she almost wrote it herself. Yet she did it all in a friendly, unassuming way, happy to have me take her suggestions. It occurred to me that Edith Stein’s intellectual talents had in no way impaired the feminine side of her personality. She was anxious that I take back enough food for the return journey. She loved to show me pictures of her family, and of Husserl and Scheler too.—Father Jan Nota, S J.

Ten days later, on Sunday July 26, the Dutch Catholic Bishops’ letter of protest against the persecution of the Jews was publicly read in all Catholic parishes. The public reading infuriated the Nazis, who took it as an act of defiance. They had previously forbidden public protest by Dutch churches. In retaliation, the Nazis went back on their promise that “Jewish Christians” would be left unmolested. They decided on death for all “Catholic Jews.” As an extra cruelty, they rounded up their roughly 300 “Catholic Jew” victims on August 2, the next Sunday following the letter’s public reading.

The Nazis came for Edith and Rosa Stein at five in the afternoon. The sisters were gathered in the chapel for meditation. It was Edith’s turn read at the beginning of the meditation, and she had to stop when the prioress sent for her. Two S.S. officers stood at the Carmel grille and told her she had five minutes to pack her things. After hasty farewells and requests for prayers, Stein went out and joined Rosa, who was waiting at the convent gate. The street had begun to fill with local residents who were incensed by the round up. Rosa was upset, and Edith took her by the hand saying, “Rosa, come, we are going for our people.” She meant the Jewish people. They walked hand in hand to the corner where a van waited. It all took just a few minutes.

What follow are Edith Stein’s last letters, written July 24 thru August 6. The first two, written before the S.S. came for her on August 2, discuss her efforts to emigrate with Rosa to Switzerland. The last letters were written from a Nazi detention center in the Netherlands.

Letter (in French) to the Prioress of Carmel Le Paquier, Switzerland

Echt, July 24, 1942
My dear Reverend Mother,

Today we received your good letter. I thank you with all my heart for being willing to accept me as a member of your dear family—yours and that of all my dear sisters. I am unable to tell you how touched I am by your goodness and even more that of the Good God. You will understand it even better after you have heard the history of our lives and that of our family. We will now see if it is possible to get permission to leave the Netherlands. But it will probably take much time—months I suppose. I shall have to be content with such a promise.

Our dear Reverend Mother and my sister Rosa will add a few lines. Again, a thousand thanks, my dear Reverend Mother, and the expression of my respectful love in Jesus Christ.

Your very little and humble, unworthy,
Sr.Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, OCD

Letter to Auguste Perignon, a former teaching colleague in Speyer, Germany

Echt, July 29, 1942
Pax Christi!
Sincere thanks for your kind note. R.I.P. for your dear brother. You will be grateful that he has found release. Since you are informed about us, I need only tell you the latest: Switzerland wishes to open its doors to my sister Rosa and myself, since the only cloistered monastery in our Order in that country—Le Paquier in the Canton Fribourg–will receive me, and a Convent of the Third Order Carmelites an hour away (from the Carmel), my sister. The two houses have certified, to the aliens’ office of the police, that they will provide for us for our lifetimes. The big question remains: will we be given permission here (by the Nazi occupation forces) to leave (the country). In any case, it will probably take a long time. I would not be sad if it did not come. After all, it is no slight matter to leave a beloved monastic family the second time. But I will accept whatever God arranges. Will you please tell them in Speyer and Kordel about this and ask for prayers?
To you and all who continue to think of me, cordial greetings. In Corde Jesu, your
Teresa Benedicta a Cruce

Letter to her Prioress at Camel Echt

Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 4, 1942

Dear Mother and Sisters,

During the past night we left the transit-station A. (Amersfoort) and landed here early this morning. We were given a very friendly reception here. They intend to do everything possible to enable us to be freed or at least that we may remain here.* (*In the margin at this point in the letter is written, “Aug. 5: Is no longer possible.”)

All the Catholics are together and in our dormitory we have all the nuns (two Trappistines, one Dominican), Ruth (Kantorowicz), Alice (Reis), Dr. (Lisamaria) Meirowsky, and others are here. Two Trappist fathers from T. (Tilburg, Holland)) are also with us. In any case, it will be necessary for you to send us our personal credentials, our ID cards, and our ration cards. So far we have lived entirely on the generosity of others. We hope you have found the address of the Consul and have been in touch with him. We have asked many people to relay news to you. The two dear children from Koningsbosch (Annemarie and Elfriede Goldschmidt) are with us. We are very calm and cheerful. Of course, so far there has been no Mass and Communion; maybe that will come later. Now we have a chance to experience a little how to live purely from within. Sincerest greetings to all. We will probably write again soon.

In Corde Jesu, your B.
When you write, please do not mention that you got this.

(Enclosed in this letter were a note to the Carmel from her sister Rosa and a message to the Swiss Consulate in Amsterdam that said, “Enable us as soon as possible to cross the border. Our monastery will take care of travel expenses.”

Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt

Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 5 (1942)

My dear Ones,

A R.C. nurse from A. (a Red Cross Nurse from Amsterdam) intends to speak today with the Consul. Here, every petition (on behalf) of fully Jewish Catholics has been forbidden since yesterday. Outside (the camp) an attempt can still be made, but with extremely little prospect. According to plans, a transport will leave on Friday (August 7). Could you possibly write to Mere Claire in Venlo, Kaldenkerkeweg 185 (the Ursuline Convent) to ask for our (my) manuscript (of The Science of the Cross) if they have not already sent it. We count on your prayers. There are so many persons who need some consolation and they expect it from the Sisters.
In Corde Jesu, your grateful

Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt


Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 6, 1942

Dear Mother,

A Mother Superior from one of the convents arrived last evening with suitcases for her child and now offers to take some short letters along. Early tomorrow a transport leaves (Silesia or Czechoslovakia??).

What is most necessary: woolen stockings, two blankets. For Rosa all the warm underwear and whatever was in the laundry; for us both towels and wash cloths. Rosa also has no toothbrush, no Cross and no rosary. I would like the next volume of the breviary (so far I have been able to pray gloriously). Our identity cards, registration cards (as Jews), and ration cards.

A thousand thanks, greetings to all, Y.R.’s grateful child,

(P.S.) 1 habit and aprons, 1 small veil.

The letter of August 6, 1942, was the final letter. Early on Friday, August 7, at the railway station in Schifferstadt, Germany, a woman in dark clothing inside a sealed transport hailed the stationmaster who was standing on the platform. She identified herself as Edith Stein and asked him to pass her greetings and a message to friends who lived there. The message was, “We are travelling east.”

The transport carrying Edith and Rosa Stein arrived at Auschwitz on Sunday, August 9. All the women and children as well as most of the men were immediately gassed. They were buried in a mass grave.

None of the Jewish Catholics mentioned in Stein’s letter of August 4 survived Auschwitz. Alice Reis was a nurse. She had converted to Catholicism in 1930. At her baptism in Beuron, Germany, the godmother standing next to her was Edith Stein. Stein first met Ruth Kantorowicz in Hamburg when Ruth was three years old. In 1934, they became friends when Ruth joined the Catholic Church. Kantorowicz was also a Ph.D. From 1935 on, she often typed Stein’s manuscripts. When the Nazi’s came for her on August 2, she was living at the Ursuline Convent in Venlo and had been typing Stein’s manuscript for The Science of the Coss. That is why Stein’s letter of August 5 discusses a manuscript being sent to her from that convent.

All the accounts of survivors from the detention camp in the Netherlands that mention Edith Stein agree on her remarkable calm and leadership in the camp. One survivor’s account was as follows:

It was Edith Stein’s complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners. There was a spirit of indescribable misery in the camp; the new prisoners, especially, suffered from extreme anxiety. Edith Stein went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping, and consoling them. Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.

My Favorite Book (A Few Words for Wednesday)

This weekly slot was meant to feature poetry and has done so until today. But yesterday afternoon I picked up my favorite book again for the fourth or fifth time, and I can’t imagine writing about any other “Words” right now. You may know Norman Maclean (left) as the author of the story behind the movie “A River Runs Through It.” My favorite book is Norman Maclean’s other book.

“A River Runs Through It” has the best first line and the best last lines of any book I’ve ever read, except maybe Maclean’s other book. A slightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in Montana with a Presbyterian-minister father and a troubled brother (played by Brad Pitt in the Robert Redford movie), “A River Runs Through It” begins:

In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing. 

It ends, following the death of the author-narrator’s brother, a superb fisherman:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

I am haunted by Young Men and Fire, Maclean’s other book, published posthumously in 1992 after Maclean had spent the last fifteen years of his life researching and writing a story that had haunted him since he was in his 40s. He died at age 87.

The story is the Mann Gulch fire, and both the fire and the haunting are summed up beautifully in the opening lines of Young Men and Fire:

It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story. I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass. 

Maclean says “the East” but means Chicago. For forty years he was a revered professor of English at the University of Chicago and wrote only scholarly works until his retirement in the 1970s. Then he set out to do what most of my memoirs clients do, nothing more, nothing less: set down a few stories for his children. The result was A River Runs Through It and Other Stories—three in all, including the fabulous title “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’” While the title story concerns Maclean’s family life as a child and young man, the other two pieces in the book are about his forest experiences in late adolescence. He fought fires in the West when he was only fifteen, so the story of thirteen college-age boys dying in “a blowup in tall, dead grass” was something he always identified with.

This will be a very long post if I don’t set some limits to it. So let me do two more things only: tell you why I love this book so much and give you part of the ending of the book. You’ll have to read Young Men and Fire to read all of the ending.

Young Men and Fire is a work about young men by an old man who stood where the young men stood and fought fires as they did. MacLean 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.”

Young Men and Fire is the work of a man who never stopped searching for the meaning of existence. Maclean dedicated his retirement years to reconstructing what happened to the young Smokejumpers from the moment they landed full of youthful confidence “up gulch” from the fire to the final moments when, the fire having “blown up” and rushed toward them on a steep hillside in high flammable grass on the hottest of August days, they scrambled desperately for the ridge where they knew the fire would wane. Only two young men and their leader made it alive. Did the leader’s “escape fire” (you’ll have to read the book) cause the deaths of some of the fallen? And what did the fallen experience as they fought for their final breaths in a fire that suffocated them before it burned them?

Maclean offers a beautiful answer to the latter question:

Although we can enter their last thoughts and feelings only by indirection, we are sure of the final act of many of them. Dr. Hawkins, the physician who went in with the rescue crew the night the men were burned, told me that, after the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this final time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill, which on that slope is nearly east. Ranger Jansson, in charge of the rescue crew, independently made the same observation.

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky. 

This is almost but not quite the end of Young Men and Fire. You will have to read it yourself to reach the final lines. They will hit you like a haymaker.

The best way to tell you how much I love this book is this: On one of our final trips together, my father, then an old man, and I traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to see my uncle (Mom’s brother), a retired rancher. In our rental car, I set out alone one morning along the road that winds south with the Missouri, until I reached what are known as the Gates of the Mountains, the place where the Missouri flows northward out of the Rockies and from there onto the Great Plains. One of the first gulches inside the Gates is Mann Gulch. Just downriver (north) of Mann Gulch, I hopped a charter boat and asked to be dropped off upriver at a place where I could climb into Mann Gulch. I was dropped at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon, and I then climbed the side of Meriwether to a place where I could look into Mann. Here is the picture I took from that vantage point:

The far hillside is the one up which the young men raced against fire.

Norman Maclean wrote two great books in his last twenty years, his seventies and eighties. I am now 59, and if I can write one book half so good as either of these before I’m done, you can punch my ticket. But even if I don’t write one good book, I want to live my last years as Norman Maclean did, searching for the truth—and as the young men did too, facing the top of the hill, “nearly east.”

Because God Does Not Take Six Weeks’ Vacation

I was walking down the street after Mass this morning when I passed one of the Protestant churches in town. On the signboard outside, beneath the four names of the female minister, the church announced: “No Services until after Labor Day.” I’m not sure this post couldn’t end here, but let me share a few thoughts that occurred to me by the time I reached my office, a couple of blocks away.

If I didn’t go to church for the next six weeks, something inside me would grow cold. That something is already lukewarm now and then, and it wouldn’t take long for it to freeze up entirely.

An argument can be made here for a full-time celibate priesthood, don’t you think? Father Barnes is away for two weeks, but he never would have left for more than a day if he didn’t have Father Hennessey, our wonderful “permanent” guest priest, to fill in for him.

Finally, it occurs to me that if God really exists, and His Son Jesus Christ really appeared on earth 2000 years ago and remains present in the Eucharist today, then a minister taking six weeks off is a bit like installing a hammock in your office and sleeping the summer away while your boss is working 24/7. If I were the boss, I’d fire you.

But maybe that’s just me.

(Note: Bliss Hammocks did not endorse this message.)

ADDED Wednesday 8/4/10:

Faithful follower of this blog Mujerlatina has suggested this alternate illustration, noting that it shows “the legendary Johnny Appleseed who imbues the perfect qualities of a folk hero on vacation: au natural; earthy; contemplative and, for the priests’ sake, celibate!  He was like a St. Francis of the Americas.”

Music for Monday: Ireland Forever

In honor of Frank, who started this weekly feature but is temporarily ashore, and while thinking of several friends from our parish who are in Ireland for the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Irish tunes and groups—though the last song here is technically neither. No religious uplift is intended or expected; and the post will probably draw some loud boos. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

I’ll start with a tune dedicated to my buddy Paul, whom I don’t see half enough these days. A few months ago, I saw a concert by some boys from the Galway village of Tuam in Paul’s company, and it was a happy night. First, the canned version—

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And now a live version from last year, to show just how popular “The Saw Doctors” are, even in the USA, even after 25 years—

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Next up are The Pogues, with a thought for my brother-in-law, another Paul. Now sailing happily somewhere in retirement, Paul was the first person to introduce me to Shane MacGowan and company—

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Flogging Molly is an LA-based Pogues-type outfit, headed by Dublin-born Dave King and his wife, Bridget Regan (on tin whistle and fiddle). “What’s Left of the Flag” at least mentions rosary beads—the only Catholic reference I can make out. Am I missing something?

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Perhaps not the most popular Irishwoman among Catholics is Sinead O’Connor. Sorry, but it is hard to top this version of “The Foggy Dew” sung with the most Irish of all modern bands, The Chieftains, even if Her Baldness did tear up a photo of JPII on SNL eighteen years ago.

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“The Foggy Dew” is about the Easter Uprising of 1916. My favorite Irish tune concerns a later bunch of Troubles. You can make an argument that this is the greatest rock ’n roll song of all time.

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There are many versions of this final song, one of the great Christian hymns, but nobody does it like The Dropkick Murphys. The hymn is English, the band is from Boston, but the tune is all Irish.

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Because Most Time is Ordinary

For those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the full four-volume text published after Vatican II, today is change day, from Volume III (Ordinary Time, Weeks 1–17) to Volume IV (Weeks 18–34). Putting away one volume, which has curled comfortably to conform to the shape of my hand over the past four months, and bringing out the next is like a change of season. It reminds me—because it’s early Sunday morning, and I’m free-associating here—of St. Patrick’s Day in New England. Time to put away the tools of winter and bring out the deck chairs. “What comes out on St. Patrick’s Day?” “Paddy O’Furniture.”

When I first started praying the Liturgy of the Hours, it was with the white-hot fervor of the convert. Golly, some days early in 2008, in the weeks after my set arrived from (where else?) Amazon, I even prayed the three minor hours and sang a few hymns. Now, I almost always do the Office of Readings at the beginning of the day, but after that it’s anybody’s guess: Even on good days, I may only squeeze in Evening Prayer and, before bed, Night Prayer.

Still, change days always remind me of the liturgical calendar, and this change day is especially interesting to me as someone who is finally settling into the thought, “I am a Catholic.” I looked it up and discovered, to my surprise, that Ordinary Time is a new term, dating from 1969, post–VC II. My unfailing source of all things true—not Scripture, not the Church, I’m talking Wikipedia—says that

The term Ordinary Time was first used with the liturgical reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council. The reformed liturgical calendar took effect on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969. Before this there were two distinct seasons known as the season after Epiphany and the season after Pentecost. 

I had assumed that for two thousand years the Catholic Church (unlike the Protestant denominations of my early years) had embraced this lovely word Ordinary. It is a word both humble and powerful. Ordinary = everyday, not particularly important. Yet also ordinary = order, something that keeps my life in order, aligned with God’s law and the teachings of the Church. I guess that will have to remain my own private meaning.

Whatever its source, the term Ordinary Time does remind me how lucky I am to be a Catholic. As a boy in the Congregational and then Episcopal Churches, I loved Advent (what child doesn’t?) and I developed an imprecise but uncanny feeling about Lent, especially Holy Week. But the rest of the year was fuzzy and liturgically adrift. I know the Episcopal Church retains the rudiments of the liturgical calendar, but I was never educated in its structure and so wandered through the year from one Christmas to the next without a map, much as even we Catholics wander through the week, from the obligation of one Mass to the next.

What I love about the Catholic Church is that it calls to me every day, and at each hour of every day. Whether I pull Volume 4 from my briefcase to read the Noon hour or not, I know that it’s in there calling to me. Even that is a comfort.

For All the Saints: Ignatius of Loyola

In Congregational Sunday School as a child, I used to sing, “Jesus loves me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Today, I have a dear friend who signs his e-mails, “If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be true.” This moves the argument from Protestant to Catholic terms: I know what I know, not because the Bible tells me but because the Church does.

But there’s really only one thing that can convince me of the Truth, or of Jesus’s love. If I am going to be a free and reasoning human being, the only thing that tells is my experience. I want to experience Jesus as intimately as that little child in the picture.

This is what touches me in today’s reading from the Office about St. Ignatius of Loyola. The excerpt is an anecdote from the life of the founder of the Jesuits that is recycled in Fr. James Martin’s book My Life with the Saints, which was so instrumental in my conversion. I know next to nothing about St. Ignatius or the Jesuits—I think of him as a sort of Don Quixote who woke up; I think of the Jesuits as really smart guys in black who, like me, may sometimes be too smart for their own good—but I think I understand the anecdote.

Bedridden and in search of something to read, Ignatius asked for tales of knight-errantry, but none were available. So, in spite of himself, he read “a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.”

When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy.

Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercies, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

“He understood his experience.” One of our great saints converted because of experience. Ignatius’s spiritual readings, unlike tales of knights and romance, corresponded to the deepest needs of his heart, leaving him not dry but joyful.

I am undertaking a book purge in my house. Now that I’ve entered my 60th year, I realize that I will never read all of the books I have accumulated around me, like boxes of Topps baseball cards from my youth. So I am giving them away, or selling them for pennies to the dollar where I can. Slowly the pile is dwindling down to a couple hundred or so, and maybe finally it will come down to a few dozen. I’m pretty sure that when the dwindling is done, the flashy Folio Society editions that I collected during a misspent youth will all have vanished. Popular novels by Cormac McCarthy and Tony Hillerman will be gone too. I’m not sure what will be left exactly, but I’m sure the saints will figure highly on the remaining list, as well as a few secular works that have always moved me, including Norman MacLean’s Young Men and Fire. 

If I remain true to the impulse that’s working now, I will hold on to those few books that correspond most deeply to the needs of my heart, the books that leave me anything but dry. I will do my best to be guided by experience.

There is a paradox waiting here, however, as our dear guest priest, Fr. Dan Hennessey suggested this morning. In his homily, he read us a prayer of St. Ignatius that I had never heard. (Repeat: I know very little about the guy.) The prayer is as follows:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

As a human being, I want to—I must—preserve and enhance my freedom and reason. I want my faith to remain solidly founded on experience. But St. Ignatius invites me to give up “my entire liberty . . . my whole will.” It’s no contradiction. When I have met Jesus as surely as that child in the picture, I will—from freedom as from reason—give him my whole will too. Or so I can pray.