Because of Harold Bassage

We hear a lot about memories so painful they are repressed. Psychologists study them: some actually happened, some not. But what about positive memories that we forget—of mentors, say, who turned our lives in positive directions? What happens to these memories? Are we too ungrateful to harbor them? And what do we call these memories when they finally alight? I call one of them Dr. Bassage.

For the first time since I began this blog, I remembered Harold Bassage today while out for a walk. And slapped myself on the forehead. And asked myself, you ungrateful twit, why no post about Dr. B?

How could I forget Harold Bassage?

I was ten years old when my father’s Minneapolis company was bought by a New York firm, and my whole world was uprooted. We moved from the bucolically named County Road Five in the ditto hamlet of Deephaven, Minnesota, to a larger house on a hill in the intimidating town of Greenwich, Connecticut. I wept bitterly when informed of the move, and I missed my friends in the old neighborhood, like David Wiper and Billy Nickerson, and at Blake School, like Phil Ahern and Art Saunders. (Full disclosure: I did not miss my first Catholic friend. I don’t even remember his name.)

I’m sure my parents missed our Congregational church in Wayzata (they had been married there), but I didn’t miss it much. It seemed to amount to Sunday school mostly, about which my clearest memory is that my brother got left behind one Sunday. We drove all the way back to Deephaven before my parents noticed he was missing. But then we were four on the way to being six children; David was quiet; and there are precedents (Luke 2, 41–53).

So when my parents opted out of the Congregational parish in downtown Greenwich, and decided perhaps that Christ Episcopal Church was a bit too high-hat, choosing instead to become faithful parishioners of the much smaller St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in the countryside north of town, I didn’t think much of it. But by this chain of circumstance, I was brought under the influence of Dr. Harold Bassage, and I believe that he contributed to my being a Catholic today.

I do not have a picture of Dr. Bassage handy. I know there’s one on the wall of my mom’s winter home, and the next time I’m there I’ll grab it, scan it, and post it. But there’s a tidy symbolism in the picture of an interior wall of St. Barnabas that illustrates this article (courtesy of the St. Barnabas web site). Other than the stone wall itself there are two items of interest: one I had personal contact with every Sunday I served at the altar, the processional crucifix, seen here in a mounting bracket; and one I don’t remember at all, the date, 1958. You see what I mean about memories? We moved to Greenwich in 1962, which means the church was only four years old when we arrived. This fact seems significant to me now, but it made no impact on my youthful consciousness then. Either that or I repressed it.

But Dr. Bassage . . . I carried the crucifix ahead of him, and proudly. He was not the rector for most of the three years I served on the altar. That would have been Reverend Bailey, who may have been a D.D. too, but I never thought of him as “Doctor.” Dr. Bassage was already relatively elderly by that time, and he was the assistant pastor, on his way to full retirement, as I recall. I remember Reverend Bailey, perhaps unfairly, as a bit of a moralizer who didn’t quite connect with me as a 12-year-old. He admonished me in confirmation class, I remember, for not praying at night on my knees. That didn’t go down well somehow.

Why did Dr. Bassage impress me so? Perhaps there was something in the theatrical connection. When you Google Harold Bassage, the first line is a reference to his late, lamented play, “Who Shot Willie? Mom told us that he was connected with a theatrical group in New York City. Theatre was an interest of mine as I moved through my teens, and we may have connected through this common interest.

But there was something else, something in Dr. Bassage’s manner, probably in his sermons (though I don’t remember one), and certainly in moments when I talked with him face to face that communicated something of a genuine religious life. He had a deeply honeyed voice and a kind, kind gaze. His voice quavered when he spoke and his double chin wobbled a bit, as though the words coming through were charged with gratuitous energy. Yet he had a reserve about him that was a bit out of place in Greenwich, a distance that he maintained between his self and whatever was happening right in front of him. This was the antithesis of high-hat—not supercilious or know-it-all at all. It was rather a real presence and respect for what was before him, whether it was a wealthy parishioner or an occasionally devout 14-year-old. It was a presence that I as that 14-year-old could truly sense. In Dr. Bassage’s presence, I felt accepted as an intelligent, interesting person, and I felt perhaps that it was not he alone who was accepting me. When Dr. Bassage spoke, there was another presence in the room.

When I applied to boarding school, I asked Dr. Bassage to write my personal recommendation. I had no confessor at the time, not being Catholic, but I guess I figured that if anyone knew me, it was my beloved minister.

I have reason to believe that his last years, perhaps particularly after full retirement from the ministry, were lonely years, but that’s a private issue. I regret that I did not stay in touch with him but rather heard, casually, along the way from my mother, that he had passed away. I did not attend his funeral. But with this post I hope to set things straight and lay a flower at his grave. Dr. Bassage was an angel I have too often forgotten, a hovering memory, meaningful but elusive.

Did you have a mentor like that?

Because Catholic Women Seem Happy

The four most important people in my life are women: Katie, our two daughters, and my recently widowed mother—three generations, with correspondingly different outlooks. What do I wish for them? Happiness.

It is logical to me, then, to judge the Catholic Church by this criterion: Are Catholic women happy?

I thought of this tonight while reading the new print edition of First Things which has not yet appeared on the First Things website. In it there is an article by Mary Eberstadt as provocative as its title, “What Does Woman Want? The War Between the Sexless.” Using as a springboard two essays by women, one in favor of and the other against traditional marriage, Eberstadt draws a dark picture of contemporary marriage, in which overworked wives and undersexed husbands grow tired of one another. Or as a blogger she quotes has it in an essay title, “For Many, Marriage Is Sexless, Boring, and Oppressive: Time to Rethink the Institution?”

Pictured with me here is my mother, Nan Bull, and I shudder to think of the arguments I’ll be in as soon as she reads this post. We may be smiling in the photograph, but we won’t be once the donnybrook ensues. (Note to sisters: Please, please don’t pass it on!) As the mother of four daughters, in addition to two sons, Mom is a cantankerous proponent of women’s rights, and she would not take kindly to a self-righteous, know-it-all male heir telling her what will or won’t give women happiness!!! (Triple exclamation point!)

But Mom, peace, that’s not my point here. I have just read an article that describes married women as unhappy, and while you may not plan to remarry, the other three women in my life are either married (Katie) or would like to be so and happily (Martha and Marian). And the evidence is not encouraging. “Two charges,” Eberstadt notes particularly, are “made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.”

I won’t spoil the ending of Eberstadt’s article. (It’s spicy! . . . Or quite sad.) I am left only with a question: Are Catholic women happy? Because being a Catholic is the most important factor in my life, and if Catholicism somehow contributed to women’s unhappiness, I would be sorely troubled.

Are Catholic women happy? I would defer to Catholic women for a definitive answer. Please note the comment box at the bottom of this post. My own, probably biased and purely anecdotal judgment is that, yes, the Catholic women I know seem very happy indeed. I suggest that you come around St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church and meet some of my female friends. There are ten masses a week to choose from, not to mention sixty hours of Eucharistic Adoration where I share time with such people as Pat, Martha, Jackie, Connie, and Paula, and meetings of such ecclesial organizations as Communion & Liberation, where I have the pleasure to know the likes of Carol, Ellen, Julie, Elizabeth, Deb, Heidi, and Jenny. These and other Catholic women I know strike me as quite happy indeed.

Is there a connection between Catholic social teaching and the happiness (or not) of Catholic women? Again, there is a comment box at the bottom. I don’t want to get in any more trouble with my mother than I’m already in.

Because of “A Man for All Seasons”

Forty years ago, I first saw A Man for All Seasons, about the martyrdom of St. Thomas More. I saw it again this afternoon, maybe my fifteenth viewing, but only my first as a Catholic.

Why do I love this film so much? Let’s give it the Kristin Lavransdatter treatment, with a Top-10 countdown:

10. As More, Paul Scofield rocks. A British TV report of his death likened his voice to the sound of “a Rolls Royce starting up.” When he shouts “Nevertheless” in the climactic court scene, the Rolls is going about 10,000 RPMs. When I was eighteen (about my age when I first saw the film), I wanted to be “the next great Hamlet.” Being the next Paul Scofield would have been good enough.

9. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, A Man for All Seasons is partly a father-daughter story, and I am a sucker for father-daughter stories. More’s daughter Margaret, his eldest child, became reputedly the best educated woman in England, and the scenes between Susannah York and Paul Scofield in the film are heart-rending. My wife, Katie, walked into the TV room as More’s family was visiting him in prison for the last time and Margaret was begging him to take the oath, and my face was streaked with tears. Margaret so wants her father to take the oath and save himself. He so loves his daughter—but will not take the oath. (“What is an oath but words we say to God? . . . When a man takes an oath he is taking his own self in his hands.”)

8. The supporting cast is spectacular. There are at least a dozen great performances, including Colin Blakely as More’s head servant, Matthew, and a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn, but I especially admire John Hurt as Richard Rich and Leo McKern as his mentor, Thomas Cromwell. They are the perfect slimy foils to Scofield’s paragon of integrity.

7. More lives in a world far more hierarchical than our own, and his genius, his sanctity, is never to lose sight of the order of things. More’s last words on the scaffold are, “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” God always comes first. It’s amazing how many English Protestants of the sixteenth century forgot that. And today? How about us Catholics?

6. More illustrates the power and the eloquence of silence. According to Cromwell, More’s silence about the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was “bellowing up and down Europe.” Qui tacet consentire: Silence gives consent. How often would I be better off keeping silence in my daily life? Silence is powerful. Silence is eloquent.

5. More is a martyr closer to our times than, say, Perpetua or Justin, and therefore one I can better understand. He was a man of the world, embroiled in worldly politics, who came to a moment in his life when he realized that he had to make a final choice between the world and God. He chose God, and the scaffold.

4. The story is set at the cusp of the Protestant “Reformation.” (Ferde calls it the Protestant Rebellion, when he’s being generous.) Whatever you call it, the film and the face-off of Thomas More with Henry VIII demonstrate that the motives for Protestantism were often grounded in completely worldly interests. Henry was horny, OK? And if you want to understand Lutheranism and its eponymous founder, take a look at Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.

3. There is a touching marriage at the heart of this film, Thomas (Scofield) and Alice (Wendy Hiller). In fact, Alice was More’s second wife and not the mother of any of his children, born by his first wife, who had died. But theirs’ was a marriage, and their final encounter in More’s cell in the Tower brought another wave of tears to my streaked face this afternoon. (More: “It’s a lion I married, a lion.” Bull: “It’s a lion I married.”)

2. This has nothing to do with the movie, but Thomas More wrote one of my favorite prayers. A modernized portion, sometimes called “The Lawyer’s Prayer,” reads: Give me the grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught; to set my mind fast upon Thee and not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths. To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly company but utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of the business thereof.

1. The bad guys get it in the end. Or as Psalm 37 has it, “Do not fret because of the wicked . . . they wither quickly like grass / and fade like the green of the fields.” After the axe comes down on More’s neck, a voice comes up to tell us: “Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitor’s Gate for a month. Then his daughter Margaret removed it and kept it until her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphillis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.” Well, most of the bad guys.

Because It Makes Me Think

Thanks to the Deacon’s Bench for featuring this collection of new images by fashion photographer Michael Belk. Christ is among us, isn’t he?

Because of Dogma . . . Not

Just back from my Saturday morning men’s group at St. Mary Star of the Sea. A great group of guys, usually about fifteen strong; a mixed group, agewise, smartswise, even faithwise. Protestants slip over the fence once in a while, and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, even atheists are welcome. Some members, like Ferde, Bill, and Jonathan, are extraordinarily knowledgeable about scripture and Catholic doctrine. Ferde founded the group three or four years ago, and it has grown successfully under his leadership.

But boy, it drives me nuts sometimes—while redirecting me, graciously, to the sources of my own personal faith.

This morning, Bill presented on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of Mary. Within ten minutes, we were arguing (arguing!) about such matters as:

  • the precise meaning of the Immaculate Conception
  • whether Mary died or merely fell asleep before the Assumption
  • whether Jesus’s “brothers” were really brothers, or only cousins
  • the meaning of the filioque clause
  • the meaning of Theotokos
  • the meaning of until (as in Matthew 1:25—”And [Joseph] did not know her until she had brought forth her firstborn son”)

It got to the point where I wondered if someone wouldn’t quote St. Bill of Clinton on the meaning of the word is.

This is what occurred to me, as I slumped back in my chair, knowing that I had neither the knowledge of dogma nor the intellectual firepower (at least at this hour, 8 a.m.) to enter the fray. It is entirely enough for me that:

  • God so loved us that he gave us his own son;
  • That this son, the incarnate Word of our Heavenly Father, actually appeared here on earth and showed men just like me His face;
  • That He was born from the womb of a virgin;
  • That He spoke to us and told us what to do; and
  • That, as St. John of the Cross wrote, God has nothing more to say.

Wow! This is enough for me. It’s all I need, Lord. To contemplate this, to fully understand and appreciate these facts. I ask nothing more.

The argumentation, the dogma, and all the puffed-up reasons for the split between Eastern and Western Churches—all that’s for someone smarter than me, and with way more time on his hands.

Because of My Father II

I found this photograph while cleaning out Dad’s office after his death last fall. The caption on the back, in my mother’s hand, reads, “Dave and Web, Galesburg, December 1951.” Which makes this my first Christmas. We must have been visiting Dad’s sister Roz and her family in Illinois. It’s not exactly St. Joseph and the Baby Jesus. I look like I’m in the presence of Jesus, or maybe Darth Vader. In any case, it is very dear to me.

Now that he’s gone, I understand better that Dad was the single most influential figure in my life, especially in my spiritual life as a Catholic. This is odd, first of all, because Dad was not a Catholic.

There was a time when I thought he was too tough on us kids. (I am the oldest of six, so I had more encounters with Dad the Disciplinarian than any of my siblings.) There was a time, somewhat later, when I thought he was a jerk. (But then I was nineteen.) Looking at him now through the lens of my own fatherhood—and my own Catholicism—I understand what an extraordinary debt I owe him.

Dad largely espoused Catholic social teaching without being himself a Catholic. He sat me down at age nine or ten and talked to me about the evils of masturbation and the virtue of remaining a virgin until marriage, and I always understood that he had practiced what he preached, even when I didn’t. If nothing else, and he had his faults, my father was a straight arrow. A few years later, when I was ready, I suppose, he sat me down again and spoke sensitively but firmly about homosexuality. I know that my father fell head over heels in love with my mother and never let himself fall out. It is impossible for me to imagine him being unfaithful to her. Six months before he died he told me in confidence that Mom had been a perfect mate for him. He had no regrets, he said; there was not one thing he would change about her.

Although neither of my parents was Catholic, they lived a committed “Catholic-style” marriage. I don’t know the intimate details, but the fact is, they had six children. My wife Katie’s parents, who were Catholic, had “only” seven. I know that my youngest sibling was a surprise, and my parents made room for her too. My parents were “open to life.” Mom loves telling the story about a Catholic lady friend who told her, “Nan, you’re not Catholic, you’re just careless.” Maybe Mom and Dad were more Catholic than her friend supposed.

A word about Mom: She was a huge influence too, and a positive one. I am most grateful for Mom’s influence in a more worldly realm that is very important to me, the realm of culture, of books, of art, and of theatre. Arguably, I would not be writing this blog without Mom’s influence. This blog is about Catholicism, however, and this post about Dad.

Dad took his paternal duties seriously—not just playing sports with us in the yard and attending our plays and games and Christmas sings, but especially teaching us good habits, like turning off the light when we left a room and not going outside in our stocking feet, like putting things away in an orderly fashion and putting up the toilet seat when we (boys) had to pee. He taught me to shake hands firmly and to look the other person in the eye. He taught me to shave. I used to love sitting on the edge of the bathtub and watching him shave—meticulously, first with downward strokes, then with upward. He had a thick beard. More important than shaving, though, was cleaning the sink meticulously after you were done. I can still see Dad’s hairy hands with those knobby knuckles scooping the water from the faucet and rinsing every last whisker down the drain, as he explained his technique. When the time came for me to drive, he taught me to be a good, safe driver in an extraordinarily detailed fashion. His method, boiled down, was, Even if no one’s driving with you, drive as if your passenger were the most important person in the world, and make the ride safe, secure, and enjoyable for her.

I’m not sure why all these details matter to my life as a Catholic, but I suppose that because of Dad I am comfortable with any catechism, any litany, however long, because Dad taught through his words and his actions that there is a way to live life properly, and that you have to pay attention to the details.

And there is this about Dad that was extraordinary: As a parishioner, as a vestryman, Dad was committed to his church (raised Methodist, he attended Congregational, then Episcopal churches as an adult) and he engaged in worship with manly intensity. I know this because I stood next to him so many Sundays, impressed with his erect bearing and intent expression, and embarrassed by the passionate way he sang the Protestant hymnal. If he saw me gazing up at him, he would turn to me with that amazing Dad smile, with his lips pursed and his eyes twinkling with love, as if to say, I love you and isn’t this great?

I think I learned by his example that worship can be a manly pursuit. This may seem an odd statement, but when you consider how much of our culture is based on do-it-yourself and self-help, and especially how our culture often defines manliness as go-it-alone individualism, I think it is important for boys and young men to understand (especially by gazing at the example of older men) that getting down on your knees before your Creator and singing loud hymns of praise to the Holy Trinity are fine, good, manly things to do. My father did these things without blinking, because he believed what he professed.

There was a contemplative side to Dad that I found particularly congenial as he grew older and perhaps my own rawest ambitions for worldly success began to quiet down. He told me a few years ago that as a child what he most loved to do, after dinner, while his parents were sitting on the patio with their friends, was to walk down to the lake alone and swing from the swing that hung from a tree branch there. Dad would swing out over the lake, and I can still imagine him swinging, gazing at the lake surface in the evening light, in total harmony with his God or maybe just with the breeze whistling in his ears. We saw this contemplative side later in life, as Dad was quite content to sit, just to sit—yes, sometimes with the television on, sometimes with a book—but sit, with Mom on the other end of the couch and their feline pal, Dodger, purring between them. There was a calm and a contentment and an enormous gratitude for God’s gifts about Dad when he sat.

There was a loneliness too. When he became sick with melanoma and felt nauseous most of the time, he declined visits from most of his friends and told me that he would prefer to go off into the bush alone the way a Masai warrior does at the end of his life. I think Dad would have been happy ending his life that way, alone and speaking to his God.

So it was not entirely a surprise, though it was a delight, to read the final paragraph of my father’s memoir, which he completed with the help of my daughter Martha in the last months of his life. Dad wrote:

I’ve been extremely interested in my son Web’s conversion to Catholicism, because I’ve always had the impression that Catholics are in general more serious about their religion than Protestants. I don’t know if that’s actually true. There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk. I believe strongly in discipline, though not unquestioning obedience to leadership. I believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it as well as you can and work at it. I believe that satisfaction comes from the struggle of trying to do things well.

As I near the end of my first month of writing this blog, I am buoyed by the love of my wife and daughters, and steadied by the good advice of friends like Ferde and Elizabeth and Julie, but most of all, perhaps, I am sustained as always by the thoughtful love of my father, David Bull. He would appreciate my working at this blog at all hours, trying to do it as well as I can, and he would share my satisfaction with it as though it were his own.

Because of Faces Like This

I see faces like Ralph McInerny’s face every morning at mass. It is the face of a joyful person, a joyful Catholic.

So when I saw this face beaming out from one of my favorite daily reads, Pat McNamara’s blog of Catholic history, I smiled. It makes me think of Frank Gaudenzi, of Flo Marchegiani and Maria Maticoli, of Henry and Phyllis, of Barbara and Warren, of Michael and Elizabeth, of Neil and Julie, yes, even of that tireless curmudgeon and my brother in faith, Ferde Rombola. That is, I think of many of my fellow daily communicants at St. Mary Star of the Sea.

This is not the face of an addict who needs a drug to experience joy. It is not the face of a young person hypnotized by electronic media. It is not the face of lust or even the face of euphoria. It is not a thrill-seeker’s face. It is not the face of a person in the manic phase of his cycle.

It’s the face of a happy Catholic. I know it is, because I see this face every morning at mass.

Pat McNamara’s “Quote of the Day” (always worth a look) is from the retiring Notre Dame professor of medieval studies:

In a word, Christianity is historical, the unfolding in time of an eternal plan, with God made man the central figure, our savior.

Because Nuns Play Soccer

I found this story passed along by Deacon Greg Kandra too inspiring to pass up.

Like St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., this convent in Nashville, Tenn., is seeing more vocations than at any time in recent years.

To those of you (I wasn’t a Catholic yet) who survived faithfully the abuse scandal early in this decade, these numbers, these vocations, have to be extraordinarily heartening. God bless these young women and men!

Because Joan of Arc Was a Catholic

Like Fr. Jim Martin in My Life with the Saints, I find St. Joan of Arc one of the most compelling figures in history. Her story is true, testified to by not one but two trials.

Please check out this book review from Ignatius Insight and judge for yourself. A fine review of what looks like a beautiful book.

I’ve used this image before: Jules Bastien-LePage’s painting of Joan, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I was walking through the gallery when I came upon this painting — stopped — gaped — captured it on my iPhone — and have never stopped loving it.

Because I Fell In Love

I have fallen in love twice in my life. The first time was with Katie. I fell in love with my wife two or three years before I got up the courage to ask her out. Once I had asked her out, we had a four-month courtship and twenty-five years of marriage, and counting. I love Katie as much as I ever have. People adore Katie—hey, she’s adorable—and I happen to be the lucky fool she agreed to marry. This picture was taken atop Dun Anghus on the largest of the Aran Islands last March. God willing, we will return to Ireland together many times.

The second time I fell in love it was with a church, the Catholic Church. I was reminded of this last evening, talking with my friend Anujeet about my blog and its central question, Why am I Catholic. That’s simple, Anujeet effectively said, you fell in love. And there it was. The ultimate reason why I am Catholic.

I have always thought it’s impossible for a third party to understand why two people, like Katie and me, fall in love, and how they sustain a marriage. The love and marriage of others is probably unanalyzable. It just is. Let it be.

Converting to the Catholic Church was like that for me. I tried to explain it to my dazed friends and loved ones. I rationalized. I made up stuff. But basically, Ma, I fell in love. And that’s that.