For All the Saints: Martha

I had “Catholic” daughters long before I was a Catholic. By some inspiration, I pushed to name our first child Martha. (Katie preferred Alicia.) Martha virtually forced the name of our second child by skipping around the living room endlessly singing the song “Marian the Librarian” from “The Music Man” in the weeks before Marian was born. So (Marian being a form of Mary) my daughters were named for sisters who waited on Our Lord after he had raised their brother from the dead, and when I became a Catholic over twenty years later, I may not have had the pedigree, but, by golly, at least my kids had the right names! If we had become the parents of a boy, I’m pretty sure he would not have been Lazarus, however. I would have opted for George.

Being the father of daughters (and no sons) has caused a shift in my life somewhere between subtle and radical. While my mother taught me a thousand things, the father-son axis was central to my early life—from backyard baseball to side-by-side worship—and I’m sure that in some corner of my soul I expected to be a father to a son of my own. Instead, I have daughters.

This morning, as I contemplate Saint Martha, her sister, and the many women who followed and served Our Lord, I am touched by a sense of closeness to Jesus. In my love for my daughters, I can appreciate more fully his fullness—loving and caring for women, who loved and cared for him in return, while together they lived in a patriarchal, male-driven culture.

Having daughters softens something in a man and brings out a bit of goodness that might not otherwise be in evidence.

As a final note, I have to say that I love this painting of Saint Martha by Vincenzo Campi, which shows Martha in the foreground, surrounded by a domestic cornucopia, while in the far background at left, Mary sits by Christ’s side. I love too the prayer for today and will do my best to remember it.

Father,
your Son honored St. Martha
by coming to her home as a guest.
By her prayers
may we serve Christ in our brothers and sisters
and be welcomed by you into heaven, our true home.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Because When You Leave It to the Lord, Life Fills Up with Surprises

Yesterday was my 59th birthday, and the party was impromptu. At two in the morning Wednesday, the inspiration had hit me: I would send e-mails to people I would like to see; tell them I planned to be home on Sunday from 4 to 9; and propose that they drop in, or not. There were only two rules: no gifts and leave when I tell you. I sent about 40 messages, then helped Katie get the house ready for the arrival of the Magi.

My party was as impromptu as my wedding. Katie and I knew each other for twelve years before we started dating in 1984. After dating for four months we decided on a Monday to get married on Saturday. Whereupon I called my mother and asked her if she and Dad were doing anything on Saturday morning, early, about 8 am. She said:

“We were planning to play tennis.”
“Can you break your date?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“My wedding.”
“To whom?!!”

Poor Mom had no idea.

Setting aside the usual stresses that hosts experience when preparing for a party, and ignoring the inevitable frost-heaves on the matrimonial highway that such stresses can throw up, Katie and I actually had a pretty good time getting ready for the party—which included a soothing stop at Dick & June’s, our favorite ice cream spot. At 4pm I sat down in my favorite chair with a favorite book and waited. I thought I would be pretty cool about it, but by the time the doorbell first rang at 4:28, I already was not half as popular as I thought.

The first arrivals were an elderly couple bearing pierogi, a Polish delicacy that would later be acclaimed the gastronomic exclamation point of the evening. The next arrivals surprised me. Not that I hadn’t invited them, but in all my imaginings of the odd concussions likely to take place when friends from different sectors of my life came face to face, I had not factored in my Venezuelan-born doctor and his lovely children. They proved to be the light of the party for the next 90 minutes.

That’s partly because my guest list of 40+ seemed to be a long roll of regrets as late as 5:45. Then, in about 30 minutes’ time, we ran out of room. Not that there weren’t other “party spaces” carefully arranged in advance by Katie, but at 6:15 we had about 30 people wedged onto our patio, together with a cooler filled with beer and wine, a refreshing jug of Mrs. Tindall’s Punch, a monstrously flaming grill, and plenty of pierogi. I think the surprises began about this time. Because when you leave it to the Lord—as I had by inviting people who have nothing in common except my affection for them and then sitting back to watch what happened—life fills up with surprises.

First there was the elderly gentleman and first arrival (EG/FA). I was sitting inside with a great friend, a good guy I’ve played some so-so golf with (the patio was just not big enough by now). In came EG/FA and sat down, weary, breathless. Oh no, I thought, EG/FA is sucking oxygen and my golf buddy came here to blow off steam. EG/FA and WGB (Webster’s golf buddy) did not seem to have much in common. Separated by 30 years of age and several brackets of income, I figured they would be unlikely to run into one another anywhere else, and I wondered, with the paranoia of an amateur host, How is this going to work?! It worked like a charm: Both hailed from the same small town in upstate New York. (I had no idea.) They spent the next 90 minutes topping each other with stories of 1962 state championship football teams and the arcana of small-town politics. When EG/FA staggered out on his cane, WGB kindly, slowly helped him carry the pierogi pan to his car.

Then there was the Korean-American seminarian (helping out in the parish this summer) and our next-door neighbors, whom I have always had a fondness for but never reached out to in 25+ years of living on either side of the lilac bushes. How did they ever end sitting together?! But Betty (one of the neighbors) ended talking engineering (her job) with Kwang (the seminarian, a former PhD candidate in ocean engineering at MIT). Katie’s jaw dropped, eavesdropping on this one.

By 7:30, or about the time the Case of the Purloined Yankee Banner had been solved (long story involving Father Barnes, Kwang, and CL pal Vangie, not necessarily in that order), Katie and I were exchanging happy glances and eye-rolls. Then in about 15 minutes between 8:30 and 8:45, just as the main crowd was moving on, three members of our School of Community arrived individually, and from 9 to 10, or an hour past my bedtime, we had at least the quietest if not pleasantest hour of the evening: Katie, and I, with members of the Beverly CL mafia.

I am not doing the evening justice. But I need to get back to work here, so this will have to do. I am left with an amazing gratitude for the friends in my life—as mismatched as they may be—and the good Lord who puts them there, in exactly the order He chooses.

Maybe this is what Fr. Julián Carrón means when he writes: “The ‘wholly human’ consists in what is open to totality. . . . Everyone can verify how he faces the signs that the Lord is making happen. . . . Whoever follows what the Lord is making happen before our eyes, blossoms . . . ”

(Note: The picture adorning this post was not taken at yesterday’s party but at another midsummer birthday about five years ago. It shows a much younger me with our two beautiful daughters, who sadly could not join us yesterday from New York or Argentina. Just shows you that the miracles you hope for don’t necessarily come true, but if you remain open and accept what life brings, there will be surprises.)

For All the Saints: The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

Guest post by William “Mac” McCarthy

Blogging makes surprising connections. Back in the day when I was a lapsed Episcopalian and he was the rare Catholic at our New England school, Mac lived down the hall from me. Forty years later, now an attorney in Bakersfield, California, he read YIM Catholic and quickly promised me a write-up on an extraordinary group of Catholic martyrs, whom we honor on July 17.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

During the French Revolution’s Reign of terror, on the evening of July 17, 1794, in Paris’s Place de la Nation, a hardened crowd waited at the guillotine for the carts carrying that day’s “batch” from the Palais de Justice. A heavy stench from the putrefying blood in the pit below the scaffold hung over the plaza. During the five weeks the guillotine had stood in the Place de la Nation, a thousand severed heads had fallen into the blood-stiffened leather bag of Sanson, the Paris executioner. The blood pit had been enlarged once already but had quickly filled up again.

Usually, raucous jeers from where Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine emptied into the plaza would signal the approach of the tumbrels carrying the condemned. Not this night. A strange hush spread into the plaza. Then there was something else. Singing. Serene, female voices intoning a cool, effortless chant of verse after verse of the Te Deum.

When the tumbrels rolled up to the scaffold, the crowd grew silent. The singers were sixteen sisters from the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Compiegne. They wore long white choir mantles (cloaks) over brown robes similar to nuns’ habits. Such attire had long since been outlawed in the new order. But these women were not of the new order. Their religious clothing and singing in Latin embodied the lost time before the storming of the Bastille and the start of the revolution on July 14, 1789. Also, while plenty of priests and some nuns had been executed individually, never had an entire religious community been carted up to the guillotine. Their radiant, happy faces were wrong for this place. They should have looked sad. They were about to die. They looked joyous. The other twenty-four condemned prisoners with them looked unhappy.

The reason for the Carmelites’ happiness was their belief that the guillotine was the answer to their prayers. Every day for almost two years, since about the time of the September 1792 massacres, the sisters had made a daily act of consecration in which they offered their own lives to God as a sacrifice to restore peace, help France, and stop the killing. For Christ, their heavenly Spouse, to actually accept their offer of themselves in holocaust and grant them their martyrdom gave them great joy.

Three hours earlier at the Palais de Justice, the sisters had been condemned to death. A show trial proved them “enemies of the people.” The blatantly false charges included “hiding weapons in your convent.” In answer, the 41-year old prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, lifted her crucifix from her bosom and held it up to the presiding judge saying, “The only weapon we’ve ever had in our convent is this. You cannot prove we have ever had any others.” They had no convent anyway. The revolutionary government had confiscated it and ejected them in September 1792. Carmel Compiegne and everything in it had been sold to finance the revolution.

A fellow prisoner who saw them return from hearing their death sentences reported their faces were “beaming with joy.” A Parisian working class woman who watched the Carmelites pass by on the tumbrels had shouted, “What good souls! Just look at them! Tell me if you don’t think they look just like angels! I tell you, if these women don’t go straight to paradise, then we’ll just have to believe it doesn’t exist!”

At the scaffold, the sisters performed devotions normal for dying Carmelites. The nuns renewed their monastic vows of poverty chastity and obedience. They sang the Veni Creator Spiritus:

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
and in our hearts take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heav’nly aid,
To fill the hearts which Thou hast made. …

One sister, was heard to cry out, “Only too happy, O my God, if this little sacrifice can calm your wrath and reduce the number of victims.”

Then Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine walked over to the foot of the scaffold steps and turned to face her spiritual daughters. In the palm of her hand, the prioress held a tiny terracotta image of the Virgin and Child, a last relic saved from Carmel Compiegne. She summoned Sister Constance, the youngest sister, who approached.

This was 29-year-old Sister Contance’s first act of obedience as a professed Carmelite. Moments before, as her sisters were renewing their vows, she was pronouncing her vows for the first time. In 1789, at the start of the Revolution, just before she completed her novice year, the revolutionary government prohibited the taking of religious vows. So, after six years as a novice, she finally made her profession in extremis. Previously, she had expressed a terrible fear of the guillotine. She would show no fear this night.

At the steps, Sister Constance knelt at her prioress’s feet and received a blessing. She kissed the clay Madonna and Child cupped in her prioress’ hand. Finally, bowing her head, she asked:

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Sister Constance rose from her knees. A witness described her as radiant as “a queen going to her receive her diadem.“ As she began her climb up to the scaffold, she spontaneously intoned the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, the 117th Psalm. That psalm was sung by the Discalced Carmelite Order’s mother-foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, at the foundation of every new Carmel in 16th-century Spain. Hearing Sister Constance, her sisters immediately took up the chant:

Praise the Lord, all ye nations!
Praise Him all ye people!
For his mercy is confirmed upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endureth forever!
Praise the Lord!

At the top of scaffold steps, still joined in chant with her sisters, Sister Constance waved aside the executioner and his valet. She walked on her own to the vertical balance-plank; was strapped to it; and then lowered into horizontal position. With a swoosh and a thud, the guillotine had cut the number of voices to 15. The remaining voices rose in defiance. Even before her falling head reached Sanson’s leather bag, Sister Constance was in the arms of her heavenly Spouse in the Kingdom of the Lamb.

The exact order in which the other 15 sisters climbed the scaffold has not come down to us. We know only the last two sisters. What is known is that the guillotine mob remained silent the whole time, an almost impossible–or one could say miraculous–occurrence. The bumps, clicks, swooshes and thuds of the death apparatus told of the deadly business. But the calm, austere chant of the Laudate Dominum never stopped.

About every two minutes, one voice would fall away from the others, to be heard no more by mortal ears. Each sister, when her time came, went to her Mother and knelt; received a blessing; and kissed the Madonna and Child statuette.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Here are the names of the other sisters:

Sister Jesus Crucified, choir sister, age 78. She and Sister Charlotte had celebrated their jubilee of 50 years of profession.

Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, choir sister, age 78. The martyrs arrived at the Paris Concierge (jail) from Compiegne on July 13 after a two-day journey in open carts. Sister Charlotte was unable to rise and step out of the cart with her sisters. She could only walk with a crutch, but her hands were tied behind her back. Exhausted, she sat alone in the tumbrel in the soiled straw. An angry guard jumped up and tossed her out onto the cobblestones. After lying still for a while, Sister Charlotte lifted her bloodied head and gently thanked the brutal guard for not killing her. She wanted to live long enough to make her witness with her sisters.

Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception, choir sister, age 58

Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, choir sister, age 52. Sister Julie Louise of Jesus entered Carmel as an aristocratic young widow. Well educated and musically talented, she composed a song or poem every year for the community’s July 16 patronal festival, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This year, at the Concierge in Paris, since writing materials were forbidden in jail, she managed to obtain scraps of charcoal. She composed a long five stanza song about a happy martyrdom and set it to the tune of the bloodthirsty La Marseillaise. One line went, “Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high!” The day before they went to the guillotine, all the sisters gaily sang Sister Julie Louise’s feast day song. Their only disappointment was they would not die on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Sister Teresa of the Heart of Mary, choir sister, age 52

Sister Saint Martha, lay sister, age 52

Sister Catherine, extern, age 52

Sister Marie of the Holy Spirit, lay sister, age 51

Sister Teresa of Saint Ignatius, choir sister, age 51

Mother Henriette of Jesus, past prioress and novice mistress, choir sister, age 49

Sister Teresa, extern, age 46

Sister Saint Louis, subprioress, choir sister, age 42

Sister Saint Francis Xavier, lay sister, age 30

Sister Henriette of the Divine Providence, choir sister, age 34. This sister was the second to last to die. She was a fiery beauty, whose nine adult bothers and sisters included two priests and five nuns. Fearing her natural beauty would be a distraction, she had withdrawn from the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, a public nursing order and sought out the hidden life in the cloister at Carmel. One of her sisters became the Superior General of all the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. (This was the order of St Bernadette of Lourdes.)

In the courtroom at the Revolutionary Tribunal on the day of her martyrdom, she boldly challenged the Tribunal’s notorious public prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, to define what he meant by calling her community “fanatic.” In response to her repeated demands that he stop avoiding her question and answer it, the prosecutor finally said their “attachment to their religion” made them criminals and dangers to public freedom. At the guillotine, since she was the Carmel’s infirmarian, she took a place by the steps and helped her older, weaker sisters up the scaffold steps.

The psalm chant stopped only when the last Carmelite, the prioress—Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine, age 41, had climbed the scaffold steps and followed her daughters. She was the only child of an employee of the Paris Observatory. Since she was not from a wealthy family, the generous young Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette, had paid her dowry for Carmel. The prioress was well educated and artistic. Some of her paintings still hang on the walls of French Carmels. She was only 34 when she was first elected prioress. She is believed to be the first nun to have felt the call to community martyrdom.

Before beginning her walk up the steps, the prioress made the sign of the cross and paused. A pious woman in the crowd, who saw the hesitation, understood and moved up to discreetly take the tiny terracotta Virgin and Child statuette from the hand of the great prioress of Carmel Compiegne. The statuette was kept safe and has come down to us.

Ten days after the Carmelites of Compiegne fulfilled their vow and offered themselves up in sacrifice to stop the bloodshed, Robespierre fell from power. A bloody revolutionary, he was a key architect of the Reign of Terror. The next day, July 28, 1794, he was guillotined and the Reign of Terror soon faded.

That the martyrs were able to wear parts of their forbidden habits at the guillotine, like their white choir mantles, was due to unusual coincidences or, more likely, the hand of God. After their expulsion from Carmel Compiegne, they had been forbidden to wear their habits. With no money to buy clothes, they had to accept worn out, cast-off, immodest clothing. They draped scarves over their shoulders and necks to protect their modesty.

But, on July 12, 1794, in the jail in Compiegne (a confiscated convent) they had donned what remained of their habits in order to wash their single outfits of civilian clothing. At the same time, the mayor received an order from the Paris Committee of Public Safety ordering the martyrs’ immediate transport to Paris for “trial.” The secular clothes were soaking in wash tubs. Delaying the execution of the Paris order was unthinkable (and too risky) for the Compiegne officials. Therefore, the martyrs went to Paris in what they had left of their forbidden habits. Perhaps, when their Lord decided to accept their offer of martyrdom, He also granted the martyrs the tender mercy of dying in their beloved, long, white choir mantles.

The worn-out, immodest civilian clothes left soaking in the tubs at Compiegne had yet another role in God’s plan. Confined in the Compiegne jail with the Carmelites had been 17 English Benedictine sisters. Four others had already died in jail. They had been arrested as foreigners in 1792 at their monastery in Cambrai. A granddaughter of St. Thomas More had founded the monastery when Catholic religious orders were forbidden in England. Though kept apart, Benedictines learned of the Carmelites’ daily consecration to sacrifice themselves to restore peace and free prisoners.

After the Carmelites were taken to Paris, the Compiegne jailers made the Benedictines wear the Carmelites’ abandoned civilian clothes. The Benedictines were still wearing them when they were finally allowed to sail for England in 1795. That community eventually founded England’s famous Stanbrook Abbey. Today, Benedictines at Stanbrook still honor the Carmelites as martyrs whose deaths somehow stopped the killing and saved the jailed Benedictine sisters from the guillotine. In 1895, Stanbrook Abbey returned many of the “wash tub” clothes as venerated relics to the newly reestablished Carmel Compiegne.

The martyrs were beatified by St. Pius X on May 13, 1906. Their memory is celebrated on July 17 by both branches of the Carmelites and the archdiocese of Paris.

Several successful literary and artistic works have helped spread the martyrs’ story around the world. They include Gertrude von De Fort’s famous 1931 novella, Song at the Scaffold, which in turn inspired Georges Bernanos’ Les Dialogues des Carmelites (1949), as well as Francis Poulenc’s opera (1957) and an Italian-French film (1959), both also named Les Dialogues des Carmelites.

Almost all the historical facts used in this post come from William Bush’s outstanding book, To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne Guillotined July 17, 1794, ICS Publications (1999). The same goes for a lot of the wording and observations in this posting. Bush has spent many years studying the martyrs. His book has a picture of the terracotta statuette and photos of art work by the martyrs, including a beautiful pastel of Christ on the Cross by Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine. Any errors, misstatements, or unclear writing here in this post are this writer’s fault.

For a short, brilliant essay on the martyrs, Catholicism, and modern times, read “The Mantle of Elijah: The Martyrs of Compiegne as Prophets of the Modern Age” by Terrye Newkirk, OCDS. It is only 11 pages and easily downloaded from the ICS website.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Because Lebron is Not King

I had a choice tonight: to watch “Black Robe” on Netflix or the Lebron James Sweepstakes on ESPN. Where are my priorities—The story of Jesuit saints among the Hurons and Iroquois, or the King of the World, Lebron James, making the Choice that Changed the World? I went with Lebron.

I don’t think you can understand The World We Live In if you don’t pay attention to the Lebron-Stakes. So many people saying so many empty words about a guy who has never won a game in an NBA final? Are you kidding? This is What It’s All About!!!

Let me give you some sound bites. It’s 8:53 and the tension mounts: “The King has arrived. We are minutes away from Lebron James announcing where he will play next season . . . Jon Barry, what’s the best fit for Lebron? . . . I don’t think it’s Miami. To me a straight basketball move would be the Chicago Bulls. His Decision is Coming Up Next! . . . At stake, the NBA’s balance of power. His Decision, Next!”

In the history of the league, the world, we—have—never—seen—this!

All indications (at 9:02) are that Lebron joins the Miami Heat, but Jon Barry says, “I am really shocked by this, I thought Lebron would join the Chicago Bulls.” And Michael Wilbon says, “Lebron is staying home in Cleveland.” Stuart Scott says, “Not in the history of American sports has an athlete generated this interest!”

Do I really need to go to Mass in the morning?

“Now, he is in the chair. Coming up next: Lebron James will tell the world where He will play next season!”

It’s 9:22 and Jim Gray is with Lebron in Greenwich, Connecticut. . . . Lebron says, “It has been a real humbling situation to be in this position.” Jim Gray says, “President Obama has said seven times that he would like you to go to Chicago” and asks, “When did you decide?” Lebron says, “This morning. . . . I had a great conversation with my Mom . . . and then I was set.”

I give Lebron this degree of credit. In the end, he asked his mother, and his decision was . . . Miami.

You may win the NBA title next year, Lebron, but sorry, Christ is King.

One final note added in the morning, in fairness: In the nearly 30-minute interview that followed his annunciation, sorry, his announcement, Lebron James proved to be a pretty good guy. The problem is not Lebron. The problem is us.

Because Living in Hope Beats Living in Fear

After thirty months, I have come to the end of the biggest writing project of my life: a 200-year-history of Massachusetts General Hospital (left, in its original form, the Bulfinch Building). Tuesday, I brought the manuscript to the copy editor, all 213,000 words of it. While I have a thousand loose ends to tie up (epilogue writing, photo editing, caption writing, etc.), I have begun to scan the horizon and ask: What’s next?

I have nothing in prospect, nothing definite anyway, certainly nothing with the heft of the MGH book. Where that project has provided a large portion of my income since the beginning of 2008, the bits and pieces of work that I know are in front of me for the rest of this year and next will provide relatively little. Twenty years ago, the situation would have worried me, terrified me. Today not.

There are rational reasons for fearlessness: I have been a writer of private memoirs and organizational histories off and on for these twenty-plus years. My name is “out there.” The phone will ring. And probably, when I get the office cleaned and the loose ends tied, I’ll do some networking too, and that will “pay off.” But meanwhile, I haven’t even a twinge of worry, not even when I wake up in the middle of the night.

Why do I experience hope instead of fear? Because I really, truly believe (I must, I wouldn’t feel as I do if I didn’t) that the Lord will provide. Give us this day our daily bread, we ask, and He does. While I clean the office and put out feelers for other work, the real effort I can and wish to make is to put Christ at the center of my mind, my heart, life. Then everything will take care of itself, or rather He will take care of it. Not because I deserve it or because I am somehow special, but because that’s what He does.

Because I Cannot

On a wall in my house, hanging in a place where I pretty much have to see it two or three times a day for about twenty seconds, and sometimes even in the middle of the night, is a framed copy of a poem that every well-bred English-speaking schoolboy memorized a century ago, and maybe some do even today. It struck me last evening, as I was standing and waiting for nature to take its course, that this poem captures everything sad and beautiful about our modern world.

The poem is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and if you haven’t committed it to memory, you can click here and get started, although I do not recommend it. The framed copy was given to me years ago by a good and long-lost friend, a well-meaning gift. The poem is a brief talk from a father to a son about how to be a man, with all sorts of stiff-upper-lip advice about manliness. (Look at the firm jaw, the beady gaze, the prominent eyebrows in that picture of Kipling!):

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss; . . .

The only verb in the entire poem, effectively, is can. If you can do this and do that and do the other thing, then [final line] you’ll be a Man, my son. Two things strike me: (1) there is no mention of God, or His help, anywhere in the poem; and (2) instead of God, Kipling capitalizes Man. 

By contrast, this morning I was struck by some lines in Psalm 51 as part of the Office of Readings:

I flourish like an olive tree in the palace of God.

I hope in the kindness of God,
for ever, and through all ages.
I thought: that’s the whole thing right there. I already am a lower-case man, my own father has passed from the scene, and still I cannot. I set my mind on something, I project my brow and jaw forward, but at the end of the story, sometimes it happens, sometimes not. Meanwhile, however, there is one thing that I have found I can do: plant myself in the palace of God and hope in his kindness. Go to Mass. Say my prayers. Put my mind on God. Take my chances.
These are two distinct ways of living: “being a Man” who needs nothing more—and “being an olive tree” who trusts that God, through his kindness, will nourish me. Somewhere along the way we well-bred English-speaking schoolboys lost sight of the second way.

To Be a Catholic Father

My friend Neil presented the following talk at our men’s group this morning. As a Catholic father, I found it very inspiring. 

Guest post by Neil Corcoran
Good Morning and thanks for having me this morning. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a handful of St. Mary’s Men’s Group Saturday morning meetings over the past couple of years. And, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that it literally has only been a handful of meetings that I’ve attended. However, the reason why it’s been so few is because of the very topic I speak about to you this morning – FATHERHOOD. You see, I’m a father of seven children…

As you might imagine, Saturday mornings tend to be a mildly busy time for us in the Corcoran household. There’s soccer, basketball, softball, diapers, housework, food shopping, and the list goes on and on and on.… AND, there’s even an occasional early morning bike ride workout for Dad – imagine that? – One goal I have is to stay in relatively decent health and shape so that I have at least a few more years to continue to live out my vocation – being a husband and Father. So, please accept my apologies for not being a more “regular” member of your group…and at the same time please know I’m extremely grateful for your welcome this morning… I’m honored to be here. Thank you.

So, what are you going to hear about Fatherhood from me this morning? Well, perhaps let me first tell what you’re not going to hear. You are not going to hear an overly theological, scientific, or philosophical view about Catholic fatherhood. Likewise, you’re not going to get a history lesson on the role and contribution of Fathers since the beginning of time. And gentlemen, please don’t expect an in-depth study of Biblical quotes and citations on Fathers, or any reference to the so-called “great” or recognizable Fathers in our world today. I don’t mean to minimize any of that nor do I take it for granted. But to me, the vocation of Fatherhood – its meaning, its mission – is fairly simple and straight forward, not necessarily easy, but certainly clear. There’s really no need to overcomplicate it. The fact is Fatherhood has been and always will be, until the end of time, a vocation that can’t be understated in terms of its importance, its value, its contribution to the greater good. That said, what you are going to hear from me about – what I’d rather spend a bit of time attempting to do with you this morning – is sharing one man’s perspective, one’s man’s journey, and one man’s experience, complete with the joys and the challenges – on being a Father, A CATHOLIC FATHER…. today.

As I speak to you today, most of you who are Fathers – in fact I may venture to guess that all of you who are Fathers – have been Fathers longer than me. But, where you have me beat in longevity, I think I have you beat in quantity! And with that quantity, I think I can offer a qualified perspective. I became a Father close to 16 years ago when my wife Julie and I welcomed our first of seven children, Patrick, into the world. We were married at an age that’s considered young by today’s standards – we were 23 and 24 years old – and almost a year to the day of our first wedding anniversary, Patrick was born. A 7 and ½ pd, small bundle of love who is now approaching 16, is 6 feet tall, twice as wide as me, and dare I say… might be able to “take” the old man in a friendly father-son wrestling match in the driveway. Life sure does go by fast.

My journey to Fatherhood was for a time, heading towards, a different type, but certainly a no less important type of Fatherhood, the priesthood. For several years during my time at Providence College, I discerned the priesthood. And although I absolutely KNOW that God, in his Divine Providence, called me to the Fatherhood that I now live, I am forever grateful for that period in my life when I looked deeply into who I was, a child of God, and what it was that God was calling me to do. I grew increasingly closer to the Lord, to his son Jesus Christ, and I developed an enormous sense of respect and brotherly love for the Dominicans – the Friars of Providence College – and for all men who we call “priest”, who we call “Father”. I admire those men more than any others on the planet. That period of my life had a profound impact on me and my understanding of what it is to be called, to have vocation, and for God to have a “plan” for each of us. I remind myself daily that my vocation in life – Fatherhood – is in fact God’s plan.

I mentioned a few moments ago that my perspective on Fatherhood is a simple one, not always an easy one to live, but a simple one to understand. Let me explain. To me, to be a Father, a true Father, a Catholic Father in it’s most fundamental state is to be a Christ-like man, to bear witness to the love of Christ and our ultimate father, the Lord, and to be a man of compassion, love, and mercy, to our children, our wife, and all those around us.

When I look at St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, entrusted with the safety of the newborn Christ and our mother Mary, I see the very definition of Fatherhood; I see the epitome of what it means to be a Catholic Father. Soft spoken, trusting, trustful, faith-filled. We often hear a lot about Mary’s “Yes”… that is, the Virgin’s complete giving of herself to God…”Let it be done to me according to thy word”. It changed everything. Well, in the same way, Joseph gave his complete self to the Lord and his plan; he trusted the Lord, and in his own way gave his “Yes” to the Lord. What a role model St Joseph is for us, for all Fathers, for all men! I often try to think about what Joseph must have been thinking 2000 years ago, when presented with what could accurately be described as a stressful situation. I think of this situation, Joseph’s situation, and more importantly I think of his willing, selfless, and unsung response during the times when I’m faced with Fatherly stress, with the trials and tribulations and worries of Fatherhood, of providing for and sheltering 7 children, educating them, making the right choices, keeping them safe, parenting them to become faith-filled Catholics. I take great comfort in Joseph during these times – I look to follow his example, his YES, his trust of the Lord and the Lord’s plan for him.

Pope John Paul II once said about St. Joseph: …that, “What emanates from the figure of Saint Joseph is faith. Joseph of Nazareth is a “just man” because he totally “lives by faith.” He is holy because his faith is truly heroic. Sacred Scripture says little of him. It does not record even one word spoken by Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. And yet, even without words, he shows the depth of his faith, his greatness. Saint Joseph is a man of great spirit. He is great in faith, not because he speaks his own words, but above all because he listens to the words of the Living God. He listens in silence. And his heart ceaselessly perseveres in the readiness to accept the Truth contained in the word of the Living God. We see how the word of the Living God penetrates deeply into the soul of that man, that just man.”

For me, the most striking piece of Pope John Paul II’s characterization of St Joseph is that St. Joseph is great in Faith because he LISTENED.. he LISTENED to God. He isn’t great because he had all the answers, or thought he had all the answers, or thought he could tell those around him that he had the answers. He’s great because he listened. What a beautiful contrast to what the world and society would suggest to us today! In a world where manhood, masculinity, and by extension Fatherhood are too often measured by the volume of one’s voice, or perhaps the boldness or brashness of that voice – in other words, telling other people what to do, the notion that I’M in control here, I’M the boss, I’M in charge and I’ll be damned if anyone ELSE’S PLAN is going to take MY plan for MY life off track …. Well, in contrast to that, St Joseph provides us Catholic men, us Catholic Fathers with the truest example of Fatherhood – A fatherhood and a life rooted in and entirely dependent on Faith – Faith in the Lord – Faith that comes not through speaking, but through listening to and embracing the Lord and his plan. Faith and trust that trumps any plan we have for ourself – Faith that totally submits us to the Lord and puts HIM, not us, in charge. Gentlemen, as Catholic Fathers and Catholic men, let’s emulate St Joseph, carrying out our vocation with complete fidelity and selflessness.

Having said that, I must admit I have moments in my Fatherly vocation when I think “OK, I’ve got this under control, I can do this on my own – I don’t need any help… and then something goes sideways and I quickly realize that I failed to remember that “I NEED God – I NEED his help – I don’t have a chance without him”. For without my embracing his presence, I lose perspective on the situation, on the moment… I become out of balance, frustrated, stressed, or otherwise un-loving. And the crazy thing is that these moments and situation are not particularly stressful or monumental in and of themselves. It’s that I make them such because I lose sight of Christ. I compare this to situations which should seemingly be entirely stressful and anxious, like times our children were born. But, I approach those situations knowing I’m not in control – knowing it’s in God’s hands, not mine … and I feel completely at peace and in sync with God’s plan for me, my vocation of Fatherhood. My opportunity is to see God and his plan for me in everything, situations both big AND small, and completely submit to him ALL the time.

You know, we’re living in a different day and age today than we were even 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, the family with seven kids wasn’t considered the circus act that they are today. I must tell you – guys, I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard all the questions and comments, and gotten all the looks, the majority being ignorant and rude ones, about my family and its size. Things like: “You have 7 kids, Don’t you know what caused that?” or “You know, there’s ways to prevents that from happening”, or one of my favorites: “Are you DONE having kids?”, or the best of all time: “You must be either Irish or Catholic”. And my typical response to that one… “No, I’m actually Irish AND Catholic, and you must be Dumb AND Stupid”. I actually used to get angry in my earlier years when folks would comment on my family; I’d scream back at them, or otherwise write them off as someone I’d never speak to again. And then, at some point, I realized that most people who are asking those questions or making those comments don’t see Christ, don’t think they need him. And so, now, I pray for them, pray that they recognize their need for Christ. And for every 10 offensive comments I field, they are more than offset by the occasional comment that we get along the lines of “your family is beautiful”, “your kids are so good to each other”, or “you’re doing a great job”. Those go a long way. And although I take no satisfaction in hearing the many people say to me that they “wish they had had more children”, I usually just respond with, “Well then, you should have!”

Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Then, and everyday, I remember my Father – he was a special man. I am grateful to have had such a wonderful Father, a Father ,who like St. Joseph, spoke when he was spoken to, led by example, and never wavered from his faith. My Dad died 10 years ago at the age of 63, far, far too young in my estimation. A son of Irish immigrant parents, he grew up in tough, Irish Catholic Charlestown, the 5th of 6th children, my Dad handed so much down to me… his work ethic, his love of Irish history and the Irish cause, his loyalty to family and friends, his interest in being a “student” of everything, his undying devotion to his wife – my Mom – and to me and my 5 brothers and sisters, but most of all he handed down to me his example of faith and fatherhood. And that’s a gift that I now owe to my three sons and those around me.

And so my brothers and fellow Fathers, the counsel and encouragement I’d offer to any Father, young or old, would be above all TO LOVE.

Love your wife and work at your marriage.
Love your kids and lead by example not by voice.
Create and protect family time as if your life depends on it – it actually does.
Be humble and selfless, Forgive, and be compassionate, and Pray.
And don’t ever expect a script or a playbook to be handed to you that will tell you how to be a good Father or how to act or what to do in certain situations. There is no such thing. Simply Love the Lord and his plan for you, and as St Joseph did so well, listen to the Lord.

Thank you for having me and for listening…. And To all the Fathers here this morning…. Happy Fathers Day!

Because Nobody’s Perfect

I’m betting that Armando Galarraga has a saintly Catholic mother and that somewhere, last night about 10 p.m., she was smiling quietly to herself. Because we all saw the replays from the ninth inning of last night’s Tigers-Indians game. And because we all saw what Galarraga did after the play and after the game. As a nation of outraged baseball fans saw on the ESPN replays, the Tigers’ young pitcher made the third out, and umpire Jim Joyce blew the call. Joyce admitted it after the game. “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” he told reporters. Galarraga had retired the first 26 Indians in a row and was on the verge of only the 21st perfect game in Major League history. Instead, he had a “one-hit” shutout. And what did Galarraga do?

While his teammates howled at Joyce from the dugout, then swarmed him after the game, Galarraga smiled—after a momentary reaction of dumbfounded, childlike amazement. He walked away from an argument with Joyce, returned to the mound, and retired the next batter. Then, according to The New York Times:

Galarraga told reporters that Joyce apologized to him after the game, adding that he had no instinct to argue the call. “He probably felt more bad than me,” Galarraga said. Smiling, he added, “Nobody’s perfect.” 

That’s a good Catholic kid for you, I’d say, with the emphasis on good. There are plenty of baseball players and evidently many who were raised Catholic. But how many of them, in the same circumstances, would turn the other cheek . . . and get the next batter out? Good work, Mrs. Galarraga, wherever you are!

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T.S. Eliot “Choruses from the Rock” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I was wrong about T. S. Eliot, or my teachers were. As an adolescent, I was taught that Eliot’s greatest poems were his early, bleak ones: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” I wasn’t ready for “Choruses from the Rock,” written seventeen years after “Prufrock” and seven years after Eliot‘s conversion to the Anglican Church. I wasn’t ready to connect the dots of Eliot the Harvard boy and Eliot the old soul in search, who finally found what he was looking for in the Christian Church. Now that I’m pretty old myself, however, this strikes me as a beautiful poem:

“Choruses from the Rock”
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks

Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is shall shadow
The man that pretends to be.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of
the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self seeking as always before, selfish and
purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on
the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other
way.

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened
before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has
never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned
upwards in an age which advances progressively backwards?

There came one who spoke of the shame of Jerusalem
And the holy places defiled;
Peter the Hermit, scourging with words.
And among his hearers were a few good men,
Many who were evil,
And most who were neither,
Like all men in all places.

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.

Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And moderate vice

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.

Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or
lifeless
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal
imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the
place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.

The work of creation is never without travail

Light
Light
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.

Because the Mass is the Mass

The beloved Carmelite Chapel at our local mall is undergoing a makeover after 50 years in business. Since late winter, it has moved temporarily and now sits in an abandoned retail shell beside Toys ‘R Us, opposite Nordstrom’s. The temporary chapel (left) is not exactly a visual inspiration. Not knowing just where the oldest chapel in an American mall had been moved, I went in search of it this morning because I wanted to go to confession before a weekend retreat.


Father Herb was presiding and the first reading was underway as I walked in. About fifty communicants were present. The acoustics were awful. I heard every third word of Father’s homily and followed the communion liturgy only because I know most of it by heart. We wallowed in an echo chamber without an echo. But it was the Mass. I know this because Father Herb is a beautiful elderly priest and he would not lie about such things.

Afterward, I asked Father Herb if he would hear my confession. Of course he would, and while he greeted a few more departing communicants, I stood waiting for him before this (left) photo of Carmelite Saint Thérèse of Liseux, a Doctor of the Church,  I will tell you now, it is very hard to make a bad confession after you have gazed at this face for more than a couple of seconds. I thought of this young woman living from age 16 to 24 in a Carmelite convent in France, then dying there of tuberculosis, and I really could not feel anything but inspired. The confession was short and sweet—centered on a matter that has been troubling me for nearly a year now—and then I hit the road in the direction of the retreat.


There is nothing like the Mass, after or (in this case) before Confession. I am happy to be a Catholic.