Because of Half-Baked Thoughts Like These

I like to learn new words. It is a strange thing for a guy to admit maybe, but it’s true. My Mom turned me on to Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day web service when we moved back to my hometown in the summer of 2005.

Mom knows I love to read, and she loves to play the board game SCRABBLE. Heck, all of her kids love to play that game! We used to have tournaments in an attempt to beat her at this wonderfully simple, yet stimulating word game. And don’t let her Southern demeanor fool you: she is one tough competitor and doesn’t like to get beaten. [Read more...]

Because This May Be My Last Mass

Gulp . . . My eyes water, and I get a lump in my throat just looking at this photograph.

That is Our Lord on Iwo Jima, and a priest providing comfort and solace to the sheep of His flock. Young Marines in a crazy, mixed-up, madhouse of a world with death staring them right in the face. Death from a thousand angles, at any second, in diverse manners and forms, all of which are horrible.

How do they do it? I mean function in that environment? The same thing is going on in Kandahar today. How do they do it? I can’t put “it” into words that you would understand—not yet anyway.

One of my favorite Marines in the Marine Corps Roll of Honor is Sergeant Major Daniel Daly, winner of two Medals of Honor. He is famous for saying (as a Gunnery Sergeant) the following immortal phrase—”C’mon you sons-of-bitches! you wanna live forever?”—at the WW I Battle of Belleau Wood.

Looking at this photograph, whether you agree or disagree with the “reasons” for either World War (see our recent post), the Chaplain Corps provides much comfort to us troops. I wasn’t a Catholic when I was serving in the line as a Marine. (Wow, I would seriously recommend it now!) But many of us took advantage of the comfort the Padres provided.

Semper Fidelis

Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. President

It is difficult to imagine the 44th president of the United States delivering this Thanksgiving address as George Washington did 220 years ago.

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Geo. Washington, President

Golly, you can’t even get away with “in the year of our Lord” anymore! Then again, it’s hard to imagine either Bush, a Clinton, or any other recent president putting God above country. You’d probably have to go back at least to Abraham Lincoln to find anything comparable.

My thanks to reader Frank Weathers for this find!

Happy Thanksgiving,
Webster Bull

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 This Is My Church

Back to morning mass today for the first time in ten days. And why not, when you worship in a church as beautiful as St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly?

I know there are many who look at the Catholic Church as wealthy and its real estate as a tragic waste of resources. Couldn’t all the money that went into building this church (100 years ago) and thousands of others have been better used to feed the poor?

Consider that each pane of stained glass, each star painted in gold leaf on the wall behind the altar was put there not to enrich some prelate but to praise God. An antiphon from morning prayer today asks us to consider praise as the proper sacrifice to God. By praising God in a church as beautiful as this, I momentarily disconnect from my selfishness and especially from my belief that I made myself, I control my life, I am in charge. For a few moments, I give up, I sacrifice this mistaken sense of myself as enlightened, powerful, right. And I can come into a state in which I am receptive to God’s will and to the true beauty and goodness of His creation. The poor in me, that quiet kernel of goodness in me and in you, my brother and sister, is fed.

Blessed are the poor who can worship in a church as beautiful as this.

[Thanks again to Adam DesRosiers for his beautiful photograph. Adam's wife Jenn gave birth to their first child, Julian DesRosiers, last Thursday. Mother and son are doing fine, and Adam was last seen skipping down the street with a dazed look on his face.]

Because of a Book So Beautiful

Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928 largely on the strength of her 1,100-page trilogy of Medieval Norwegian life, Kristin Lavransdatter. I recently read it for the first time on the recommendation of a friend in Communion & Liberation (CL). I have since recommended it to other friends and family. Most people don’t have the time for such a long read. Here’s my Letterman list explaining why I think you should make the time.

10. It starts out as a father-daughter story, and I am a sucker for father-daughter stories.

9. It is a work of fiction in which faith is central. Some would say faith is fiction, and therefore so what? But faith, as Fr. Giussani taught and as CL makes clear, is quite the contrary. Faith is founded in Fact.

8. Kristin lives in a world where family is central. If you want to understand what it is about the traditional family that the Catholic Church holds sacred, read what a binding force family was in Kristin’s world and then imagine how unhinged our world could be one day without it.

7. Kristin lives in a world where sin and its consequences are realities, and few in the novel are more sinful than Kristin. Through her experience, we can better appreciate the role of sin in our lives and our need for forgiveness.

6. Kristin’s devotion to her husband, despite his screaming failings, is deeply touching, and I say that as a husband with failings, some of them pretty loud, who could not have married a more forgiving woman. In fact (this is a corollary of sorts to #8), the depth of love in even the most troubled marriages in the novel is a testament to the enduring value of family.

5. The liturgical calendar alone is used to date events in the novel. A death never occurs on August 6. It happens “a week after St. Olav’s Day.” This, and countless other historical details, plunges the reader into a world as different and convincing as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

4. The latest English translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is an award-winner and makes the story go down easy, even though you need a program to keep the players straight. As in the Russian system of –oviches and –ovnas, most characters have surnames ending in –son or –datter honoring their fathers. Can you guess the name of Kristin’s father?

3. To elaborate on #10, Kristin’s father is a paragon of fatherhood. Undset was deeply devoted to her father, and that devotion shines through every page. Those of us who are fathers can only hope to be half the man Lavrans Bjorgulfson is. (If you’re still paying attention, you have the answer to #4.) There are models of motherhood here too.

2. Twice in the trilogy I wept openly for at least ten minutes—and not at the end, incidentally. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with any work of fiction. As events unfolded, I was astounded at the depth of even the secondary characters and of the secrets they had kept for hundreds of pages.

1. The end is a stunner, and as right as rain—worth every hour it took getting to.

For All the Saints

This is the post that launched the good ship YIMCatholic into the open sea of the Catholic blogosphere  one year ago yesterday. (August 17, 2009). As you can see, it garnered all of three comments, the first of which didn’t show up until three weeks later. So,  from that shaky beginning, how do you explain the following?  One year,  645 posts, two partners, and 186,600  blog views later, YIMCatholic has managed to make it one lap around the track. Whew—Talk about a long lap!

I want to thank all of the readers, Google followers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc., and friends in the world of Catholic blogs, who have taken a few moments out of their precious time every day (or so) to stop by this space. I also would like to thank the many friends we have made along the way. They have helped to build this community, and bring it to where it is today. Kevin Knight of New Advent, Elizabeth Scalia, aka“the Anchoress”, Deacon Greg Kandra of The Deacons Bench, Julie D. at Happy Catholic, and the many, many others (see blogroll in sidebar!) that have shared this journey with Frank, Allison and me; they have helped present our work to others so that we three could share our experiences of being Catholic with other Catholics, those in discernment, and those who just wonder why we continue to reflect on the most compelling question of all: Why I am Catholic?

Here’s to hoping, and praying, that we will celebrate many more anniversaries for YIMCatholic into the future! Now, dear readers, to the post that started it all…

When I was in fourth grade at The Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota, I met my first Catholic. He was a boy in my class, who invited me over to his house one day. I don’t remember a crucifix or a Madonna; I don’t remember the term catechism or CCD being mentioned; I don’t even remember my friend’s name or what he looked like. All I remember is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, on the bookshelf above his head.

I understood, perhaps from a comment that he made, perhaps by noticing Butler, that my fourth-grade buddy, or at least someone in his family, knew about the saints and I didn’t. This gave me a sense of loss, the awareness that something was missing from my life. I know I didn’t envy his being Catholic. John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president in my fourth-grade year, and I distinctly remember declaring to someone, “I would never vote for a Catholic!”

Catholic was strange, alien, suspect in my Midwestern, Protestant world. Forty-seven years later, when I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, his first reaction was, “My mother would roll over in her grave.” Maybe that’s where the prejudice came from: his Methodist parents, although he himself never showed any anti-Catholic prejudice and was beamingly proud of my conversion. Yet despite the bias of my upbringing, I knew, even at age nine, that the saints were something else again.

We attended a Congregational church in our community outside Minneapolis. It was a beautiful white building with nothing on the walls except high, clear windows that let the Sunday morning light pour in. I remember no stained glass, no Stations of the Cross, no iconography whatsoever except for a naked cross at the head of the nave. Nothing spoke of the saints.

In Connecticut, where we moved when I was ten, my parents scouted for a church and ended at an Episcopalian congregation in the rolling countryside north of town. Here the walls were stone and the light streamed in from one side only, through large, sliding glass doors that overlooked an upscale garden. As I recall, there was stained glass above the altar, but no saints anywhere to be found

In Connecticut there was one intriguing set of symbols that I did not remember from our church in Minnesota. When I was twelve, I took confirmation classes, which qualified me to kneel at the sanctuary rail and take communion one Sunday a month—the statutory Episcopal limit, it seemed. Along the rail, there were cushions for kneeling that had been slip-cased in needlepoint by some industrious members of the altar guild. From left to right, against a blue knit background, were the traditional symbols of the twelve Apostles: keys for Peter, an X-shaped cross or saltire for Andrew, a carpenter’s square for St. Thomas, the gruesome saw with which St. James the Less was martyred, and so on. I must have asked about these symbols, and it was probably my mother who gave me the answer. She is knowledgeable about cultural history, and it was her mother, not my father’s, who would rattle teacups around Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota by converting to Catholicism after my grandfather died, when I was about twenty-five.

The symbols of the Apostles were like Butler to me: clues to hidden treasure, hints that behind the spare Protestant storyline of Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, there was a secret language that filled in the gaps, enlarging the simplistic narrative into an epic of adventure and glory. I was in my twenties before I understood that this epic was Catholic.

By that time, I had wandered, alternately on fire and lukewarm, through several years of wishing to live right. In this there was a certain amount of adolescent cluelessness, and in the psycholingo popular at the time, I thought I was experiencing an identity crisis. But my late adolescence was driven by something more: a search for spiritual exemplars and ways of living like them. If I had remained a churchgoer after leaving Greenwich for boarding school in tenth grade, I might have found my way to the saints much sooner. But in the everything-overboard mentality of those Vietnam War years, I probably would not have been satisfied with anything familiar. 

There was a Catholic parish in our neighborhood, St. Sulpice, where we eavesdropped on the mass in French. Around the corner from St. Sulpice was a Catholic bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in French. I read it then and still have it today on my bookshelf. En route to Madrid we stopped at Lourdes, where I was entranced by the story of St. Bernadette and a candlelit procession of thousands chanting the Hail Mary in three languages alternately. In Rome, St. Peter’s was our first and last destination, while Assisi was an Italian side trip that we made more than once. Here in a church basement I stared in stunned silence at the intact body of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare, covered only with a gauzy shroud. Every feature was clearly discernible beneath the veil eight centuries after her death. I almost thought I saw the gauze rise and fall with her breath

St. Francis was the saint who hit me over the head first, especially in Nikos Kazantzakis’s fictionalized biography and later in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Son, Sister Moon, in which Francis and Clare are flower children loping through sun-honeyed fields to the strains of English folk minstrel Donovan. Over the next thirty years, as my unchurched life rolled on, other saints grabbed my attention. Vita Sackville West’s biography of Joan of Arc was a thrilling discovery; I was astonished that Joan is no legend. The facts of her miraculous life are known in minute detail thanks to exhaustive testimony recorded at her several trials. When was it I realized that the central figure in the film that had hypnotized me since the mid-1960s was himself a saint, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons? As time went on, I saw that film fifteen or twenty times, in the cinema, in syndicated TV rerun, on video, on DVD.

For about a month in the mid-1990s, I attended daily mass at the Catholic church in our town. I sat through the liturgy without taking communion until one day I stood with the other parishioners, approached the priest bearing a chalice, and heard him say, “The Body of Christ.” Not knowing what to respond, I said nothing, held my hands before me as I had in the Episcopal Church, received the Host, and consumed it. I was immediately ashamed. When I got home, I asked my wife Katie, born a Catholic, what one is supposed to say when the priest says, “The Body of Christ.” She told me, “Amen.” At that moment, I realized that I would have to stop attending mass until I was ready to become a Catholic. I was an impostor before God.

I never thought about returning to daily mass for the next ten or twelve years. Then one Friday night, when Katie was out with girlfriends, I ate in a restaurant, had one drink too many, and found myself in a Borders bookstore. I went directly to the two-for-one table, thinking that I might find a birthday present for a friend whose birthday was coming up. The next moment I was in front of the book that changed my life. What was it about the book that I noticed first? The cover? A striking painting of ten men and women standing side by side with their hands posed prayerfully in front of them, a multiracial gathering, including one bearded fellow who held an upside-down cross in front of him. No, not the cover.The author? James Martin, SJ. I knew that meant Society of Jesus, Jesuit.

No, what grabbed me was the title, My Life with the Saints. Francis: the rich boy turned mendicant, the holy fool for God. God asked Francis to “repair my church,” and did he ever! Joan: a shepherd girl who, like Bernadette of Lourdes, had visions that spoke to her, visions that told her to ride across war-torn France to lead the disgraced dauphin into battle and to witness the dauphin crowned king at Reims—maid turned militant turned martyr, who died at the stake with the holy name Jesu on her lips. Thomas More: husband, father, scholar, diplomat, statesman, poet, heroic defender of the Faith, Renaissance man turned martyr and saint, “His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first

Three dramatically different figures—beggar, warrior, statesman—one faith in common. These three saints had professed the same Credo, said the same prayers, received the same Body of Christ, and died with the same God on their minds, in their hearts, and on their lips. As I attended daily mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, and attended RCIA meetings in the old convent a block away, I was convinced that what had worked for these three saints, and for every other saint in Butler, would just have to be good enough for me.

Was it possible that each of the saints—not just Francis and Thomas and Joan, but every last one chronicled by Butler, to say nothing of the hundreds added since—was deluded or just plain wrong about the existence of God, the centrality of Christ, and the reality of human salvation through faith and works? That seemed unlikely to me, although I couldn’t prove otherwise

All that I knew for a certainty, and the certainty has only increased, is that morning mass is the best hour of my day. I do it—I am a Catholic—because nothing else is better for me. Two years on, nothing else seems to make much sense at all.