John Milton, “On His Blindness” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

At the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference on Saturday, 1,000 men seated in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross were challenged to “go all in” in the great poker game with Jesus Christ. This challenge applies to you and me, whether we have a huge stack of chips in front of us or just a pair of white ones, like the widow with her mite. English poet John Milton (1608–1674) was completely blind by the age of 44—not as serious a calamity as Beethoven’s deafness but certainly a handicap to the author of Paradise Lost. His chips were depleted.

Meditating on his “spent light,” Milton came up with the beautiful sonnet known as “On His Blindness.” Any time you feel you have little to give, or the wrong thing, you can recall Milton’s final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” At the center of the sonnet stands Patience.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” 

Gettin’ Twangy, Sister (Music for Mondays)

Frank and I have so much fun with this regular feature we might have to make it a daily affair. Well, maybe not. We’ve had chants, polyphony, Christian rockers, and just plain rockers in recent weeks. It’s time to get twangy with some of America’s top country and bluegrass ladies, each of whom has something to say to the spirit. Last week, I did a post on Mary Gauthier’s lovely tune “Mercy Now,” recorded at the Grand Old Opry. Here’s a quartet of tunes that make good company for that one and may just rain a little more mercy down on us all.

Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl
You’d never guess she’s a native New Yorker, playing here with her longtime musical partner David Rawlings. By the way, the G in Gillian is hard, as in “Gilligan’s Island”—

I am an orphan on God’s highway
But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

I have had friendships pure and golden
But the ties of kinship I have not known them
I know no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

But when He calls me I will be able
To meet my family at God’s table
I’ll meet my mother my father
My sister my brother
No more orphan girl

Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I’m with them
Be my mother my father
My sister my brother
I am an orphan girl

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Nanci Griffith, “From a Distance”
Bette Midler went platinum with this tune by Julie Gold, but long before that, my little daughters and I used to sing along with Nanci Griffith on the tape player in the beloved old Blue Bomber, and at the top of our lungs—so that’s the version you get here.

God is watching us, from a distance . . . 

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Alison Krauss and Union Station, “A Living Prayer”
Their version of “There is a Reason” is even better for my money, but You Tube won’t let you embed it. So you’ll have to click here for that one.

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The Wailin’ Jennys, “Glory Bound”
This Canadian trio—Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta, and Heather Masse—is one of my favorite finds on Pandora Radio, and Lordy knows, they’re headed in the right direction:

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Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch, “I’ll Fly Away”
And you thought they were already good on their own—they are even better together! The duo combined forces and was featured on the O Brother Where Art Thou movie soundtrack. Frank really likes it and snuck it in at the last second.

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Thanks to the Support of Other Catholic Men

I spent Saturday morning at the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the South End. No, that’s not me at left. That’s Danny Abramowicz, former NFL tight end for the New Orleans Saints, author of Spiritual Workout of a Former Saint, and creator of the EWTN show “Crossing the Goal.” “Coach Danny” and his “teammates” were the featured speakers at the conference. What follows are my notes from their talks.

First speaker was Peter Herbeck, Vice President and Director of Missions for Renewal Ministries. On the topic of “Conversion,” he spoke of Easter readings in the Acts of the Apostles and asked how Paul was changed from a man affected by the circumstances of everyday life to one who was contented everywhere. Paul realized that the problems of life do not arise from circumstances but from sin. That, Herbeck said, is the message of Jesus on the Cross: “I came to put away sin.”

Sin, he said, is the drive to push God to the margins of our life. The martyrs, by contrast, went to their deaths in joy, refusing to bend to the powers that be. Their freedom of spirit “blew people’s minds.” Today, by contrast, the vast majority of Catholics live a sort of “Christian minimalism,” asking, “What’s the least I need to do to get to Heaven (or Purgatory)?” Mass once a week, confession once a year? This is putting Christianity at risk. Herbeck quoted Pope Benedict as saying that in vast areas today, the light of faith is in danger of going out.

John Paul II called us to lives of “Gospel radicalism,” to believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ is acting in us today. To have a “total and radical” faith, Herbeck said, is like playing no-limit Texas hold’em with Jesus Christ and going “all in.” But we don’t do this, we bet a chip or two, because we are seduced by our culture. Look at the Archdiocese of Boston, with 1.8 million registered Catholics of whom only one-sixth (300,000 people) go to Mass on Sundays!

Abramowicz was next, speaking on “Transformation.” He began by talking of living the fast life of an NFL star and seeing his marriage and his own soul in peril. He entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1981 and began to practice his faith more seriously.

“Coach Danny” said there are three types of people, represented by three circles. The first type has no Cross in the circle. The second type has the Cross just inside the circle, but not at the center. In the third type, the Cross is at the center of the circle. Then he described the “Spiritual Workout” needed to place the Cross at the center of our lives. This includes (1) having a serious prayer life, “stretching out in prayer,” making a daily appointment with the Lord; (2) running away from temptation which, he said, “stops fifteen minutes after you are in the grave”; (3) going to daily Mass for spiritual nutrition, the Word and the Eucharist; (4) quieting the chatter of daily lives so that we can be like Elijah, who heard the word of God “in a whisper”; and (5) gathering together as men.

Abramowicz ended by describing a heart attack he suffered in 2007. On the operating table, about to go under anesthesia, he prayed, “Lord, the timing’s not right here. I want to help raise my four grandchildren. But if it’s your will, I accept it.” He said that at that moment “a perfect calm” came over him. Then he asked the men in the Cathedral: “If that was you on that table, would you be ready?”

Final speaker of the morning was Curtis Martin (above), who took the theme of “Evangelization.” Martin is the founder of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), which evangelizes on campuses across the country. He spoke of the “dark cold spiritual winter” that Boston has survived and of the “new springtime” into which we are moving. He challenged men to take responsibility for this: “Do you think there’s another group of men like this in Boston, a group of men that God is calling? [Pause] You’re it.” Then Martin asked each man to ask, “What is God’s deep personal plan for me?” Martin asked us, “Do you believe that God’s plan for you is better than your plan for you? If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.

Pope Benedict, he said, has taught that the purpose of evangelization is to address poverty in all its forms. “Lord, what form of poverty do you want me to address?”

Martin quoted Catherine of Siena, who told the Pope, “If you are what you were meant to be, you would set the world on fire.” The problem, Martin said, is that men are basically, essentially lazy. “The devil is counting on this one thing…. Many of us are paralyzed by fear of failure. If a man thinks something might make him look weak, he won’t do it.”

Martin noted that Hall of Fame baseball players fail seven out of ten times (batting .300). Those who succeed just have “the highest FQ” (failure quotient): They fall just as many times as the rest of us, but they get up one more time.

Martin ended with a quote from Benedict’s first homily as Pope: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”

It was a great morning.

To Find Christ in the Grid

I seldom travel on business but Wednesday I did, a one-day round trip to Nashville. I had about twenty minutes to speak at a sales conference, and eighteen hours to think. Flying above the southern Connecticut coast in the early east light, I marveled at the land and river waters undulating away from the plane to the left, toward Long Island Sound. I turned from the view to my reading, the Easter edition of Traces, worldwide journal of Communion and Liberation (CL).

I became absorbed in a series of stories of CL founder Msgr. Luigi Giussani, who died five years ago. I also read about Russian poetess Ol’ga Sedakova, about the Turin Shroud, about an extraordinary man of charity from Ivory Coast, and about St. Bridget of Sweden, whose favorite prayer was, “Lord, show me your path and dispose my heart to follow it.”

Suspended 34,000 feet above ground, totally in the embrace of the Almighty, it is quite easy to realize the truth of these words from Pope Benedict, printed on the cover of this month’s Traces: “Conversion to Christ ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need, the need of others and God, the need of His forgiveness and His friendship.” The need, I thought, for Him to fly this plane.

Down there on the ground, the illusion of self-sufficiency takes hold, persuading me slyly that I do not need, that I am able to do and direct my own existence. Up here, I can feel my own fragility, my contingency, and look down on the puny scale of my ordinary life. It is ironic, as I thumb through Traces, to come upon a review of the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air,” about a businessman who escapes responsibility by flying endlessly. On Wednesday, I feel a different kind of responsibility by flying once in a great while.

Ridges of cumulus form over the Jersey shore, like drifted snow melting in the rising sun. In the lengthy article by Fr. Julián Carrón, successor to Don Giussani, there is a striking idea, repeated several times: Before “I tried to put what happened in a pre-defined grid” … Now “the grid is blown away” …”"I don’t remain in the grid, adding something” … “The risk of saying, ‘I understand,’ and putting a label on what happens, making it fit into the grid, is always lurking” … “Christianity does not fit into the grid.”

Below me now is the grid of the Appalachian chain, an uncountable collection of ant hills, an ant farm stretching toward the horizontal slash of a distant river, which cuts across the landscape as surely as Christ cut into history and is a presence here today. “The problem,” writes Father Carrón, taking off from Dostoevsky, “isn’t whether a cultured man of our times can believe in the divinity of Christ, but that without a cultured man, that is, without a man who uses all his reason and all his capacity for freedom, there cannot be real faith—one cannot reasonably affirm Christ, except as an addition to the grid, like a hat put on an already perfectly constituted ‘I’.”

East of Nashville, prior to landing, the grid has become a patchwork of fields, seemingly hedged off from one another, a bit like the tiny grazing spaces of the Aran Islands, cleared of stone slivers and walled off with structures made from those slivers. I do not especially want to be here, on a trajectory toward a 20-minute meeting that promises little meaning, instead of being happily ensconced in my home work space near Katie and within sight of my garden. But “Lord, show me your path and dispose my heart to follow it.”

We land in the grid—browner and drier from the ground than when viewed from above—with oil slicks layers on the tarmac. If any clouds are visible from above, they are only a haze here.

Later, I am sitting outside a Starbucks at the head of Concourse C, waiting for business associates to arrive on another flight. I am reading about the man from Ivory Coast more carefully now. His life was in ruins when he encountered Christ. Thirty years later, he has helped free 150,000 fellow citizens from mental illness and some from a barbaric traditional custom of being chained to tree trunks. Gregoire Ahongbonon was rescued from his former life by a priest and words from a homily: “Every Christian participates in building the Church, placing his own stone.”

In worshiping at St. Mary’s, in participating in CL and our weekly men’s group, in visiting homebound elderly parishioners, in teaching CCD to 4th graders, the presence of Christ can be palpable to me. But where is Christ here, now, outside a Nashville Starbucks, deep in the grid?

My friends have arrived. I guess I’ll find out.

Because We Could All Use a Little Mercy Now

I was in Nashville Wednesday, but I did not stop by the Grand Old Opry, or I might have heard Mary Gauthier offer this beautiful prescription for what ails us. I offer this in response to Frank’s posts about the abuse scandal, including yesterday’s “conversation” with Gen. George Washington. I don’t know the answer to the current situation, but I’m sure mercy is part of the recipe.

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Thanks to Walt Whitman (A Few Words for Wednesday)

My sojourn in the wilderness lasted forty years, from 1967, when I left the Episcopal Church, until 2007, when I wandered into a Catholic one. Many things tried to pull me apart during those years, and many meanwhile sustained me. One of the latter was the poetry of Walt Whitman, which I used to memorize and recite while out walking, striding along much as he did 150 years ago.

I know, I know. Walt Whitman was both an egotist and a pantheist. Whitman was no Catholic. He was homosexual, too—although if we throw out every poet who shared that characteristic, we lose Auden’s “Ballad of Barnaby” and Dunstan Thompson’s “Magdalen” and (who can say?) maybe even Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” It’s a sure thing that with Whitman you have to pick and choose, but then the Great American Poet gives you the whole universe to choose from. What follows are a few of my favorite pickings and choosings.

You can dip into Leaves of Grass almost anywhere and find lines to inspire your faith. Here, for example, from “Starting from Paumanok”:

Each is not for its own sake,
I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion’s sake.
I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough, 
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain the future is.
I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion, 
Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur; 
(Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion, 
Nor land nor man or women without religion.)

Whitman envisions America as a great Christian nation. Pantheist, Christian, proto-Buddhist, whatever you call him, Whitman lived in awe of the Creation and his poems inspire awe. Even “Song of Myself,” which is far from my favorite, has lines like these to ponder:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, 
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Awe at creation and skepticism at science are encapsulated in one of Whitman’s great short poems, just eight lines long and all one sentence:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

When I was in fifth grade my family moved from Minnesota to Connecticut, and I was plunked down mid-year in a new school, where I was a fish out of water. My saving grace was being a pretty good athlete—and winning the public speaking contest with Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”—Whitman’s ode to Lincoln after the assassination. But that’s not a particularly religious poem, so if you’re interested, I’ll let you look it up here.

Instead, I’ll close with my favorite lines from Whitman, the final lines from “Song of the Open Road.” The beauty of Catholicism, for me, is in the companionship it offers—of friends in my parish, of that great big fraternity known as the communion of saints, and finally of Jesus Christ. Together, we walk the road of salvation, leaving everything behind. That’s what Whitman describes at the end of his great poem. Perhaps you can imagine Jesus of Nazareth saying the following words to the Twelve. I hope I would have followed Him too:

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? 
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

To Be an Old Man Who Goes to Mass Every Day

I’ll be 59 this summer, the last age at which I reasonably can say that I’m not an old man. You may say that 60 is the new 40, but if you ask my 20-ish daughters about 40, they’ll say it’s the age to start shopping for caskets. As a Catholic, though, I’ll be happy to be 60, happier still to be 70 and 80, if I’m even destined to get there. As long as I’m going to Mass every day, I’ll be the happiest old man in town.

I see that happiness every morning in Frank G., Frank K., and Ferde, though, even at 70-plus, my big brother Ferde will not appreciate the “old man” tag. I saw it all last year in Henry, too. In October, Henry and his wife, Phyllis, stood inside the church door at the end of Mass while Father Barnes blessed them. Then the elderly couple headed off to South Carolina for the winter. The implication of the blessing seemed clear—one or both of them might not make it back in the spring.

Henry is only an inch or two taller than Phyllis, who doesn’t clear five feet, but they look hale and hearty and are both beamish and twinkly. During my first two years of daily Mass at 7 a.m., as I drove or walked my route from home to church, I often saw the two of them out walking by 6:30. They had a daily route, starting out from their apartment down near the train station and winding their way through the neighborhoods on a path that left them at the church door about five minutes of seven. I would arrive at church before them, but could almost set my watch by their arrival: First Phyllis, coming alone up the center aisle and taking her place in the second pew from the front. Then Henry, about thirty seconds later, with their two missals in hand. He would settle himself gently beside Phyllis and hand her her missal. They would often exchange a whispered word or two. They seemed to have trouble hearing each other and, I thought, repeated everything twice. They read aloud faithfully from their missals as the liturgy unfolded. One time, when the antiphon to the psalm reading was particularly long, Father Barnes afterwards thanked Henry and Phyllis from the pulpit for being the only ones who chimed in on the antiphon, because of those missals.

I didn’t see Henry and Phyllis all winter and began looking for them on their morning walk by the official start of spring this March. Not until this week did I see them—and saw them both. Phyllis is using a cane lightly now, without leaning heavily, and Henry is still following behind her with the missals. This morning they were wearing matching green Irish sweaters. Henry’s read “Sean-Athair” and Phyllis’s “Sean-Mháthar”—Irish for grandfather and grandmother. I couldn’t have been happier to see them if they had been my own grandparents.

When I was in college, I used to have a poster on my dorm room wall, one of those crunchy hippy-dippy posters we used to feature in the late 60s and early 70s. It showed an old man who looked much like Walt Whitman—whispy gray hair and beard—walking through a field holding a flower gently between his hands. I remember thinking that I wanted to be that old man some day. It seemed an odd wish for a 19-year-old who thought he would live forever. But I think that even then I knew I would not live forever.

We are all moving relentlessly toward old age (if we get there) and death (when we get there). So it matters what our vision of old age happens to be. This morning, my vision is Henry. My vision is being an old man who goes to Mass every day, preferably with my Phyllis, and carrying her missal.

(NOTE: This post owes a debt to Dr. and particularly to Mrs. Thomas Howard, about whom I wrote here.)

To Suffer with the Church, with Christ

I used to think how lucky I was not to have been a Catholic early in this decade, as the abuse scandal was first coming to light in Boston. Only now, it’s worse, and I realize how shallow that so-called luck of mine is. Now, the daily, weekly drip, drip, drip of revelations—two months ago Ireland, last month Germany, yesterday Norway—is just exactly torture. And my Pope, about whom I have written so often with admiration, is right under the drain spout. What to do?

My first inclination is to go on the defensive. As a personal witness to abuse in non-clerical situations (secular day school, prep school, ashram), I know that this is not alone a “Catholic problem.” I watched “The Daily Show” with mounting outrage a couple of weeks back as host Jon Stewart guffawed through a seven-minute segment called HOLY SH*T about—guess what. I said to myself that when Stewart runs seven minutes on abuse in the Jewish community (his culture) I’ll watch the show again. It would not be politically correct to poke such “fun” at Jewish or Muslim communities, but the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church has a bullseye painted on her forehead.

But that defensive response misses the point. And there are other ways to get lost on this issue, like leaving the Church altogether, the Protestant response. Or to leave one’s body, the Buddhist response. My dear friend Robbie shared with me a video on brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor who is famous for describing a stroke—her own—from the inside out. You can check it out here.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

If you don’t have time for this video, let me summarize: Taylor explains the basic differences between the left and right brain and then concludes that if only we could see the world from the timeless peace of the right brain all the time we would never experience distress, we would never suffer. It is a Buddhist view, and one that I imagine Robbie, as peaceable a person as I know, endorses.

But what is a Catholic to do, and now? Part of an answer can be found at the US web site for Communion and Liberation (CL). At the head of the CL web page you can find a link to a letter written to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica by Fr. Julián Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation (pictured here). In the letter Carrón begins by openly acknowledging the horror of the situation:

The request to assume responsibility, the acknowledgment of the evil committed, the reprimand for the mistakes made in the handling of the affair – all of this seems to us to be totally inadequate as we face this sea of evil. Nothing seems to be enough. And so we can understand the frustrated reactions that have been coming forth at this time.

Then Carrón poses a question:

“Quid animo satis?” What can satisfy our thirst for justice? . . . In other words, cannot the whole force of human will succeed in bringing about the justice that we so long for?

This is the question I and probably you are grappling with. What response will have any value at all? How can this wrong be righted? How can our desire for goodness and justice and truth be satisfied? Carrón writes that Pope Benedict has given us an answer, if we have ears to hear it:

To begin with, [Benedict XVI] admitted without hesitation the gravity of the evil committed by priests and religious, urged them to accept their responsibility for it, and condemned the way certain bishops in their fear of scandal have handled the affair, expressing his deep dismay over what had happened and taking steps to ensure that it not happen again. But then, he expressed his full awareness that this is not enough to respond to the demand that there be justice for the harm inflicted: “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” Likewise, even if the perpetrators serve their sentences, repent, and do penance, it will never be enough to repair the damage they did to the victims and to themselves.
 

Benedict XVI’s recognition of the true nature of our need, of our struggle, is the only way to save our full demand for justice; it is the only way to take it seriously, to take it fully into consideration. “The demand for justice is a need that is proper to man, proper to a person. Without the possibility of something beyond, of an answer that lies beyond the existential modalities that we can experience, justice is impossible… If the hypothesis of a ‘beyond’ were eliminated, that demand would be unnaturally suffocated” (Father Giussani). So how did the Pope save this demand? 

(I’m glad you asked, Father Carrón. You were starting to lose me there.)

By calling on the only one who can save it, someone who makes the beyond present in the here and now, namely, Christ, the Mystery made flesh. “Jesus Christ … was Himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, He still bears the wounds of His own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church.” Calling on Christ is not a way to seek a hiding place to run off to in the face of the demand for justice: it is the only way to bring justice about. The Pope calls upon Christ, and steers clear of a truly dangerous shoal, that of distancing Christ from the Church, as if the Church were too full of filth to be able to bear Him. The Protestant temptation is always lurking. It would have been very easy to give in to, but at too high a price – that of losing Christ. Because, as the Pope recalls, “it is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ.” 

I read this letter last night and went to bed thinking about it and woke up to the Office of Readings. Does it happen to you, as it happens to me, that when you’re thinking about a question, answers appear all around?

This week’s readings from the first letter of Peter, prescribed for the Octave of Easter, enjoin us to suffer with Christ. Yesterday, household slaves were urged to “obey your masters with all deference, not only the good and reasonable ones but even those who are harsh.” Today, married women are instructed to obey their husbands and we are all reminded, “Even if you should have to suffer for justice’s sake, happy will you be.” Today’s second reading, from the Jerusalem Catecheses, reminds us that baptism is not some Buddhist rite of cleansing the mind and soul:

Our baptism is not like the baptism of John, which conferred only the forgiveness of sins. We know perfectly well that baptism, besides washing away our sins and bringing us the gift of the Holy Spirit, is a symbol of the sufferings of Christ. This is why Paul exclaims: “Do you not know that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus we were, by that very action, sharing in his death? By baptism we went with him into the tomb.”

I would have been lucky to be a Catholic in 2002, and I am lucky to be a Catholic today, especially today—lucky to be asked to embrace the Church now, when it is most wounded. The Church is the bleeding body of Christ. It is my Pope who said it: we encounter the person of Jesus Christ in our wounded Church, and nowhere better.

“Pied Beauty” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I’m not sure. This might have been the first poem I ever loved. And it was a Catholic poem, 40 years before I became a Catholic. William Merriss was the English teacher of all English teachers at my junior high school, and he, though probably not a Catholic (I don’t know) taught me Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet and, it turns out, a Jesuit. God bless Mr. Merriss.

Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Because of the Ripples

My daughter Marian was received into the Catholic Church at Saturday’s Easter Vigil. I have been incommunicado since we left for Chapel Hill, NC, early Friday, and this is why. At times like these, words fail. I snapped three quick pictures of the confirmation rite and the camera failed too: only one picture came close to coming out. In the shot below, Marian is the blond woman directly behind Msgr. John Wall, pastor of the Newman Center at UNC.

I’ve learned that there are times when even a blogger should shut up and thank God. I will say this: The miracle of the weekend was not that Marian is now a Catholic, although that is a beautiful story in itself, which my daughter can tell you when she’s good and ready. The miracle of the weekend is not even that Marian’s father did not cry. I didn’t, and I am usually a basket case at such times.

The miracle of the weekend lies in a story involving another family member, a story I will not tell you either. But I will tell you the lesson it leaves me with.

Our conversions—and we are always converting—are not just for ourselves. When I was received into the Church two years ago this Easter, with my own father present, I had no intention of cajoling either of my daughters into following my example. Nor did I.

Please note that I am not saying that Marian “followed my example.” Katie, her mother, made the very good point that if Marian had gone to her first college choice in Philadelphia or her second in Washington DC—instead of winning a full merit scholarship and following it to UNC and the Bible Belt—none of this might have happened. Marian’s many, mostly Protestant friends at her sorority and elsewhere were probably more influential in her decision to take religion seriously than was her father.

Still, two years after my becoming a Catholic, my daughter is now a Catholic. A little ripple has gathered force. And Marian’s conversion has already had a powerful influence on someone very close to her, which again is a story for someone else to tell. Ripples can become waves.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo!


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