For My Friend Who Has Fallen Away from the Church

I have a friend, a powerful, brilliant man who has accomplished far more than I. He has been in higher places and shaken more important hands. He belongs to the best clubs, dines in the best restaurants, attracts the most beautiful women. But there is another difference between us. My friend was raised in the Catholic Church and has fallen away from it, while I was raised apart from it and have been, by some unaccountable mystery, called to it. When I think of my friend, I feel sad. And I truly don’t know what to do.

Do you know someone like this?

When I began to see how powerful an impact Catholicism was having on my life, I soon thought, I wish I had been a Catholic all my life. Then, in almost the next thought, I thought of people like my friend, cradle Catholics for whom a door closed somewhere in their minds, for whom the Church is now something in the past that they would just as soon leave behind, and I realized how lucky I was to come to it now, after two-thirds or three-quarters or who knows how much of a long, winding life, only to find myself finally at home. 

This, it seems to me, is the contemporary story of the prodigal son writ a million times over—all of the born Catholics of my (boomer) generation who, in the years following Vatican II, meaning the years of Vietnam and the sexual revolution, thought to themselves, I know better, there’s something about the Church that is wrong, I don’t need that anymore. I know that the Church, like the good father in the parable, or the good Mother that it is, waits to welcome them all home again, if only they would find their way there.

But what can we do to help get them there? More specifically, what can I do about my friend?

I see him now, same age as me, approaching sixty, with his children moved away, his house gone quiet, his power at his firm on the wane, his golf game getting shorter and more erratic by the year, and I wonder, What do his last years hold for him? What does eternity hold? I like him, I love him, and for all that he is not a church-going Catholic anymore, I admire him tremendously. At times that are not necessarily my best, I even envy him, even today: the power, the clubs, the money, the women.

What can I do for my friend? I know that the direct approach will not work. I’ve tried it, and anyway, I’m not subtle enough, not by half. Ever hear of a bull in a china shop? Well, Bull is my last name, so that’s half of the old chestnut right there. I’m not as direct as Ferde—who can be a sledgehammer when tweezers would do—but I’m in that league.

What can any of us do? Because just as Ferde and I and everyone at St. Mary’s are Catholics for Julian DesRosiers and for all the other young people coming along behind us, it seems to me that we have to be Catholics for all those who once were Catholics and could be again. Somehow, I’m thinking, we have to live our lives in such a way, or somehow find the grace, or let the grace find us, so that we are so joyous, so resplendent, that others will be drawn to the Church by our example. This will never happen, at least for me, by standing on a soapbox in front of St. Mary’s and proclaiming the kingdom or by ringing doorbells door to door. But somehow happen it must, if my friend is ever to find his way back. Either that, or God will just have to hit him over the head, as He did me.

I know the answer, or think I do: prayer. I must pray more often and more fervently for my friend. But even with prayer and the grace that buoys me, I slip, I sink, I fall. I myself am so weak that sometimes in confession I feel most of all that I’ve let the world down with my sins. Forget my salvation. What about my friend’s salvation? What about the salvation of everyone for whom I am repeatedly a bad example, not a holy one? Every time I slip, every time I’m a jerk instead of joyful, I risk shedding a negative light on my experience, on the Church, the good Mother waiting at the door.

Of course, I’m probably giving myself too much credit. And the Mother not enough. Jesus Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, is the one calling the prodigals, all those lost sheep, home. I’ve tried to recount all the many reasons YIM Catholic. I even summarized them in a personal psalm. And they don’t add up to the One Reason, what I have called the unaccountable mystery, for which any of us is a Christian.

Probably, then, I should just shut up and pray. And go regularly to confession. And say a rosary at Adoration today for my friend. Because I do love him, I do love my life as a Catholic, and so therefore logically I can only want that life for him and for all those I love.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Because of Our History (Guest Post)

A guest post arrives today from Renetta Burlage, an author and publisher from Iowa. Renetta’s lovely book of family history, Bread on the Table, tells the story of her grandmother. Here she tells of a different, longer story: the two thousand years of Catholic history that inspire her and explain in part why she is a Catholic. 

We can all trace our ancestry back to some point in our family tree, giving us an idea of who we are today and where we originated. The Catholic Church has a history as well. From Pope Benedict XVI back to our first pope, St. Peter, our church has a history rooted in Christ Jesus. As Catholics, we have a common identity and we know where our faith comes from. Over two thousand years have passed since Jesus instructed the Apostles to “Go Forth and spread the Good News.” Although I received the sacrament of Baptism as an infant, it is this longevity, this deep and unbreakable bond that draws and holds me to my faith today.

As the youngest of five children, I was raised in a Catholic family where my parents led by example instead of discussing their faith openly. My siblings and I never questioned the structure or family traditions that revolved around our faith: Sunday mass at 8:00 a.m., catechism on Saturday mornings, Holy Days of Obligation, Holy Week services, Sister School in June taught by nuns, and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Our Catholic faith was entwined in our lives and became part of our family history.

While attending college, I had the opportunity to explore other faiths through friendships of people I met. This was interesting and gave me a new perspective, allowing me to view my Catholic faith from a different angle. Although I came away from the experience realizing that we all shared the same God, my heart was not content until I came back to the roots that sustained my family, my Catholic faith.

One of the devotions I started during college was reciting the rosary. My mother, who converted to Catholicism before marrying my father, has always had a strong devotion to our Blessed Virgin Mother, and her rosary has been her lifeline. When faced with a challenge or perilous situation, my mother would quickly remind us to say three Hail Marys while trusting that Mary would intervene and watch over us.

In addition to praying for our Blessed Mother’s intercession, I have found comfort and joy in praying to our beautiful Communion of Saints for their spiritual guidance. The saints are an important segment of the Church’s history, and I marvel at the experiences these men and women had as holy models of Christ. Just like you and me, these people were born of human flesh and blood. Yet their lives exemplied their total surrender to God’s will and their service to others in need. The Catholic Church is enriched by the saints and the examples of holiness they demonstrate. My personal favorite is St. Anthony, and I value the St. Anthony’s Bread program, which provides assistance to those in need.

So much can be learned from history, especially the historical significance gained from one’s own family. Tracing the roots of history can be gratifying and re-enforces our heritage with a sense of belonging to a common body. Recently, I released a family memoir, Bread on the Table: The Story of Lottie Porter and the Family She Raised. It is the story of my maternal grandmother, a widow at the age of 46, who faced the challenge of raising eight children during the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. The experience of researching and writing this book gave me much insight into the lives of my ancestors and how they triumphed during times of adversity.

Today, I feel at home when I practice my faith in the Catholic Church, and my husband and I have incorporated teachings and traditions we have learned from our families into our new, personal family. Like the bonds that connect each member of the family, the principal reason I am Catholic is our Church’s strong and sustaining history, which teaches, strengthens, and unites us as one body in Christ.

Because Eleven O’Clock Always Comes

As Elizabeth wrote beautifully yesterday, it is amazing how often the liturgy speaks directly to the questions of our hearts. As I entered St. Mary’s this morning, I was reminded that it was two years ago today that I began attending daily mass, on my road to being received into the Church. The next thought was, When did I start taking this for granted?

As I came in, the lights were on in the nave, because it was five minutes to the hour. When I first started coming to mass, I often arrived forty-five minutes early and all but the altar lights were off. Those were holy moments, and I felt the inexpressible value of being called to worship God. Now, I come in like a season ticket holder at the opera, dropping down into my box at the last possible moment to be seen by the most possible people. There are mitigating circumstances, of course: A major book project I’m working on under a tight deadline. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours before mass. And now this blog. Often, I’ll wake up with a post half written in my mind, and the only time to put it down is Right Now.

Still, I/we take things for granted so quickly and with so little compunction. I was reminded of that again yesterday as Katie and I celebrated our 25th anniversary, partly with dinner at a restaurant where we had one of our first dates. And again this morning I was reminded by Father Barnes‘s homily and by something Ferde said, like an exclamation point, at the end of mass.

The first reading today, from Romans (2:1–11), is all about judging and being judged. But Father Barnes’s first comment was not about judging but about time: Not quoting here exactly, he said we have limited time to repent, to get things right with God.

I thought immediately to myself, And you are 58 years old, and you have a lot of catching up to do, and you’re taking this for granted?! You’d better wake up, brother.

Our faith, which can be such a source of joy, is a serious business at the same time. Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour!

Back in my Eastern spirituality days, which reached their peak in the 1980s, I met a man who inspired me more than any other. His name was Michel. Several encounters with Michel were eye-opening for me. They led me to feel a possibility that I had never known before. Then, for circumstances not entirely under my control, I lost contact with Michel. Then, a few years later, I heard that Michel had died. I felt this as a terrible loss. I felt separated from the very source of goodness. I deeply regretted my own failure to contact Michel again before his death, come what might have come. And I knew that some things are lost forever, irrevocably.

That may be the way the Apostles, the women, and other followers of Christ felt the day after the Crucifixion. Of course, they got a second chance. And we get a second chance every morning at mass! Imagine that. Michel may be gone, but Jesus Christ is present every single day—in the Church, in the Eucharist, and in our fellowship as Christians. What a joyous thought!

As Father Barnes added in his homily, quoting one of his teachers in seminary, “God could have sent us a letter.” But instead he sent us his own Son, he sent us Himself. And He is present here in this sanctuary and there in that tabernacle, every day we open our hearts and minds to Him.

As we exited mass, things got serious again, as only Ferde can make them serious. He began talking about theatre, where both he and his wife have worked professionally, and he reminded me of an expression common among theatre people. No matter how good or bad the show was, “eleven o’clock always comes.” The show ends and will soon be forgotten.

Which in the theatre can be a blessing but in life is another matter. Eleven o’clock is coming! Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour! Wake up, brother, wake up! Today is the only day you have to get things right with God.

Because of Katie

In honor of our 25th wedding anniversary today and especially in honor of Katie, the only person I know who would gladly swim off one of the Aran Islands in March and without whose courage and goodness (who knows?) I might not have had what it takes to stick with a marriage, even to such an exceptional person, for 25 years, or long enough to become a Catholic who, now bolstered by faith, upholds and defends the inviolability of marriage between a man and a woman, and especially this man and this woman—In honor of all this, I say, I’ll quote a few excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject of matrimony. Words to live by—

1602 Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.” Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its “mystery” . . .
1603 . . . God himself is the author of marriage. . . .
1604 God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.
1613 On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign—at his mother’s request—during a wedding feast. . . .
1617 The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.
1640 . . . the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. 
1641 . . . The grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”
1642 Christ is the source of this grace. . . .
1643 “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter . . . “
1644 The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life . . .
1646 By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses.
1648 It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love.

Happy anniversary, darling.

Survey #2: Because of What Hymn?

As I’ve written previously, Saturday morning men’s group can be a trial, especially when we argue dogma. But this week, Jonathan, the smartest, best-read person in the group, talked about Catholic hymnody, and I got answers to some questions—like why our hymnals are not written in four-part harmony and why Catholics don’t end hymns with “Amen.”

These questions have plagued me since becoming a Catholic because if there’s one thing I remember from Episcopal church-going circa age 13, it’s singing the Protestant hymnal alongside my dad, and if there’s one thing I miss since converting, it’s singing the Protestant hymmal (though singing alongside Dad is no longer an option).

Especially I remember learning to read music and taking a stab at the bass line on Protestant power hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” When I got lost—usually because I could not split my attention between the harmony and the relatively unknown verses 3-4-5-6—I always knew that I could really slam the old Amen at the end.

Now, not only is there no bass line to sing but there’s no Amen to slam. But I sing out anyway, although your average Catholic, to judge by my fellow, otherwise wonderful parishioners, is lily-livered when it comes to hymn singing. Poor Father Barnes comes up the center aisle behind the crucifix and the altar servers, belting “Come Now, Almighty King!” for all he’s worth, and do we back him up? No. Catholics are cowards when it comes to hymnody. Protestants may not be liturgical in the main, but they sing God’s praises loud enough to make the grape juice ripple in the Dixie Cups.

I’m not going to get into detail about Jonathan’s presentation. I don’t remember it in much detail, to be honest. But the main message was, Protestants are the man where hymns are concerned and Catholics are the mouse. Which explains the lack of both harmony in the hymnal and slammable Amens. The one hopeful message I took away from the meeting was that, now that we have a pope who is also a music afficionado, the word out of Rome is, let’s sing, people. I hope we do.

But you, my dear brother, my dear sister—what hymns have inspired you? I’ve mentioned two from my salad days in the Episcopal Church, and I’ll mention a couple of others that have inspired me only since becoming a Catholic: “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

How about you? Let’s hear it in comments below! I’ll wait a week before summarizing your responses.

Because of A Call to Silence

On the last page of his memoir, my father wrote, “There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk.” An athlete, a war veteran, a businessman, a sociable person, Dad didn’t figure for a contemplative. But I understand. I thought I could have been a monk too, at least until I read An Infinity of Little Hours.

I felt the tug of monasticism well before my conversion in 2008, though my marriage in 1984 and the two children who followed made monastic life something I could only fantasize about and never did. But after being received into the Church two Easters ago, one of my first adventures as a newly fledged Catholic was to sign up for a retreat at a Benedictine abbey south of Boston. I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours pretty faithfully for several months, and the retreat offered an entire weekend’s study of the Divine Office. It was a natural for me. Introduced to the monks of Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts, I felt instantly welcome, and by the Sunday morning of retreat weekend I literally felt that the liturgy was praying through me. It was a blessed experience. Soon, I was singing with the schola for Sunday masses, and commuting two hours round-trip both Sunday morning and Thursday evening, when rehearsal was held. One Thursday evening before rehearsal, the monks invited me to dine with them, a kind gesture of hospitality that they must share with many others. But it made me feel special and loved.

Within about three months, however, I began to experience a conflict between this fascinating brush with monastic life and a deeper commitment: full participation in the life of my local parish in Beverly, St. Mary Star of the Sea. I have a habit of overcommitting myself, and boy, was I ever! I had begun attending meetings of Communion and Liberation at the St. Mary’s rectory on Friday evenings. When Eucharistic Adoration was instituted that summer of 2008, I signed up for one hour a day, five days a week. Then I volunteered to start a parish newsletter—either before or after I agreed to be a lector. I joked to Father Barnes that I was like his dog, a puppy named Finbar, who was dashing around the rectory yard eating everything. Flushed with the excitement of being a Catholic, I was madly snapping up everything in sight. 

Sobered by my own drunkenness, I withdrew from my commitments to the abbey, intent on giving my best to St. Mary’s in Beverly. This is the parish Katie grew up in. Moreover, it is literally across the street from our publishing office. In significant ways, St. Mary’s is the spiritual heart of Beverly. And my confidence in Father Barnes as pastor and guide was growing by the week. It made sense to put my eggs in this one basket, and I have never regretted the decision, although I still miss the abbey.

At about this time, I began reading An Infinity of Little Hours, which I bought at the Glastonbury Abbey bookshop on one of my last Sundays there. The subtitle explains the content: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order. The order is the Carthusians; the monastery in question is Parkminster,  the only Carthusian house, or charterhouse, in present-day England (check out the high-tech Web site); and the five young men are novices—three Americans, an Irishman, and a German—who entered in 1960. Early in the book the author writes that of the five only one became a fully professed Carthusian following the mandatory five-year trial period. This injects an element of suspense into the reading: Who will it be and why? Or conversely who will fail to make the grade and why?

The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of monasticism, except that once fully professed, they are enlisted forever. They effectively live in individual hermitages around a central courtyard and only emerge in silence two or three times a day for mass, prayer, and occasional meals taken in community. Their “major work,” according to the author, is Night Office, said between 11 pm and 2 am. The Monks feel “the special responsibility of being awake when everyone else is asleep.” Which means, of course, that they don’t get as much sleep as you or I. Once a week, they take a walk together, known as spatiamentum, promenading two by two through the countryside and changing partners on command every five minutes so that they do not become too attached. They are never to make eye contact with one another. Carthusians do not minister to the surrounding community; they do no missionary work; Carthusians pray. Their motto is Soli Deo, God alone. They wear hair shirts. They take cold-water baths (or did until recent changes). From September 14 (The Exaltation of the Cross) until Easter, except Sundays and feast days, they undertake “the great monastic fast,” one meal a day and a pretty sparse meal at that. For lent, they also give up dairy products. And on and on.

The author is a woman, Nancy Klein Maguire. Given that women cannot enter a Carthusian monastery under any circumstances, you’d think Maguire must have had three strikes against her before even starting to write. But she had an ace up her sleeve: her husband is a former Carthusian novice attached to Parkminster. In fact, if you put two and two together, it seems that she is married to one of the four 1960 novices who didn’t make the cut. Dave, or Dom Philip, as he is known in the book, “had weighed the difficulty of solitude before he came to the Charterhouse. He had not weighed the difficulty of the other monks.” What drives Dom Philip out finally is the horrible singing of his fellow monks in choir. In Maguire’s on-line biography, her husband is described as “an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn’t minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn’t tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office.”

The meaning of the cell to a Carthusian is, Get to God or get out. Dom Philip did just that, as did three of  the other four. One found that he was a homosexual and decided to live an openly gay life outside the cloister. Another was so severe with fasting and penances that he all but went crazy as a monk. I forget now the other reason for leaving.

Maguire’s description of life in a charterhouse is so vivid, you can feel the cold damp of the cell and the rude comfort of a coarse sheet and blanket on a lonely bed. You can feel the hunger pangs from mid-September until Easter. You can feel the terrible loneliness. I was not cut out to be a Navy Seal, and now I know that I was not cut out to be a Carthusian, or perhaps any kind of monk. Number one reason? Other than celibacy, it has to be the hair shirt. When I was a boy, I had to wear wool pants to church one hour per week, and it nearly drove me buggy. I itched so much I cried. I begged my mother to get me cotton pants. A hair shirt, for this pampered guy, would be a lifelong torture.

So what is it about monastic life that attracted me and attracts me still? What is it that attracted Dad? It is the silence, the chance to bring the rest of life to stillness and “know that I am God.” Next month I am going on a four-day retreat with two friends at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts—another brush with monastic living. I’m sure I’ll come home with new impressions. Maybe I’ll even report on them. But one thing I know for certain: I’m coming home.

Footnote: Some may already have thought of Into Great Silence, the film about the original Carthusian monastery founded by St. Bruno in the Alps in 1084. Perhaps you wonder whether that wasn’t equally an influence on me. I couldn’t say. I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. It was just too—silent.

Because God Holds Me By the Hand

Reading the Office this morning, I was reminded of a formative influence in my life: In early boyhood, I lived in a neighborhood where the other boys were all older than me. I grew up wanting to be just like them, good, bad, or indifferent. I thought of this today while reading Psalm 73.

Like others, this psalm contrasts the temptation of envying the wicked with the benefits of listening to God. It begins:

How good God is to Israel,
to those who are pure of heart. 
Yet my feet came close to stumbling,
my steps had almost slipped
for I was filled with envy of the proud
when I saw how the wicked prosper.

When you’re seven and the posse you’re running with is nine or ten, you’re filled with envy and you will stumble, even if your chums aren’t technically “wicked.” The classic, never-to-be-forgotten incident occurred on a construction site, where some of the guys were having a rock fight. The clueless innocent, I wanted in on the action. I walked onto the scene only to get a two-pointed rock hurled squarely and accurately at my eye socket. When I ran home and into the kitchen holding my eye, with blood streaming down my cheek, Mom feared the worst. Fortunately, one point of the rock had hit my brow and the other my cheekbone, and all I got for my stupidity was five stitches above my eye and a boo-boo strip beneath.

While the older boys rode circles around me on their bikes, I was still on training wheels. When the older boys slept out in the woods by a campfire, I was the one who wanted to go home. When the older boys talked about sex and even experimented with it, I was like—what the heck?

Yet I was always in your presence; 
you were holding me by my right hand.

Fortunately, no single influence can lead us permanently astray. I came to believe—through a series of “coincidences” too amazing to deny—that something good and powerful had me by the hand. I can see His influence working through my father and my mother, through my pastor and my mentor, through my wife and my daughters, through my church and my pastor now, and so on through my life.

I am often fascinated to think that each of us still has a little child inside us. That big, tough guy striding down the street? Spanky. That sexy babe vamping? Darla. But as innocent as that little child may be, that child is also completely susceptible to evil.

For example, today: I come late to blogging. Others have been on the scene five or six years already. I want to catch up with the big boys (and girls). I want to ride a bike. But that kind of envy, and I can see it every single day, will get me nothing but trouble. I have to say my few words while others are spinning powerful paragraphs and remember Who’s holding my hand.

David Wiper, Billy Nickerson, Steve Ahlers, Tom Leaf, others whose names I forget . . . I wonder where they are today. Are they still throwing rocks at each other? Or do they ponder what the Psalmist says?—

What else have I in heaven but you?
Apart from you I want nothing on earth.
My body and my heart faint for joy; 
God is my possession for ever. 

All those who abandon you shall perish;
you will destroy all those who are faithless.
To be near God is my happiness.
I have made the Lord God my refuge.
I will tell of all your works
at the gates of the city of Zion.

Because All You Need is Love . . . Not

Watching the Red Sox try to hang on in their series against the Angels, I come up against a Blackberry ad using “All You Need is Love” as theme music. Love? I wonder. No, not all you need.

But “My Generation,” same as The Who’s, has been humming songs like this since the 1960s. They tell us, and we believe, don’t we, that we need nothing but someone to love us, or, same difference, “Somebody to Love,” the first big hit for Jefferson Airplane.

Why exactly did Crosby, Stills, and Nash tell us to “Carry On,” the first track on this album? Because “love is coming,” of course. “Love is coming to us all.”

Janis Joplin’s only #1 hit was “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristofferson’s bluesy ballad of romantic love. Kristofferson was Joplin’s “lover,” but how much good did that do her? Hey, but maybe “Feelin’ good is good enough for me.”

The  Doors’ 1967 super hit was “Light My Fire,” about the hottest sort of love, baby. Which didn’t do a lot of good for Jim Morrison, now, did it?

Is it any surprise that the biggest, longest-lasting hit of the 1960s was “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”? Well, not really, no.

Somehow, I end up at 1st Corinthians 13, which must be the Biblical text used most often in weddings since the 1960s. “The greatest of these is love?” Sure thing. But does anyone ever give a thought at any of those profoundly romantic moments about the two cardinal virtues that come first? 

Sox lose . . . What’s a good Catholic boy to do? . . . Root for the Angels, of course.

Because I Ate But Was Not Satisfied

“What’s Haggai to me, or me to Haggai?” or so I thought until this morning, when I read the beginning of the Book of the Prophet Haggai in the day’s Office. Haggai is a “minor prophet,” after all. As a convert coming late to the game, I don’t have time for “minor” prophets. Do I?

Then Haggai described exactly what I felt in the years before I was received into the Church:

Now thus says the Lord of hosts: 
Consider your ways!
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied;
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated; 
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed; 
And he who earned wages
earned them for a bag with holes in it.

When I was moving from high school into college, I was searching, as many people do at that age. I left the Episcopal Church and began an eastward journey, studying zen meditation, yoga, sufism—which is to say non-Christian spiritual traditions. Finally, and through a sort of minor grace (since we’re concerned today with a minor prophet), I encountered a way of being and doing in the world that I found deeply satisfying—for a time. Without going into specifics, I can say that there came a period of disillusionment with this way, partly on philosophical grounds. And the experience felt just like this: eating without satisfaction, drinking without exhilaration, earning money and finding that it slipped through the holes in my bag. In other words, going through the motions. I imagine that many people find themselves in this situation.

It was very hard to admit to myself that I was not satisfied, that nothing was sticking. I loved the people with whom I had entered into this way of life, I still do. And this way was for me an entire life, all-consuming, and as such it was the only way I knew or could imagine. I remained on this way for many years, partly through devotion to friends, partly through inertia, partly through fear of setting out in any other direction.

Fortunately, I did not have to build a temple, as Haggai instructs. The temple was there in my path. It had been literally across the street from my office since I first arrived in town. The temple was called St. Mary Star of the Sea Church. However, I do understand, from Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on Haggai, which accompanies the prophet in today’s Office, that a different kind of construction project is asked from all of us who call ourselves Catholics:

Haggai, therefore, declares that peace will be given to all who build. One builds the Church either as a teacher of the sacred mysteries, as one set over the house of God, or as one who works for his own good by setting himself forth as a living and spiritual stone in the holy temple, God’s dwelling place in the Spirit. The results of these efforts will profit such men so that each will be able to gain his own salvation without difficulty.

Construction in progress . . . The work goes slow, but it does satisfy.

Because of “Joan of Arcadia” IV

Joan of Arc dwelt in obscurity in a tiny French village for her first 17 years before going out in a blaze of glory, literally. I have a feeling that my weekly posts on her modern-day successor, “Joan of Arcadia,” are following the same pattern. Based on comments and other available metrics, my enthusiasm for this teen melodrama canceled by CBS four years ago is not widely shared. But just wait! By the time I’m done (at least twenty Fridays from now), the entire Catholic, nay Christian world will be chanting for the series’s return.

Season 1, episode 4, “Just Say No”—When last we left our heroine, a middling student at Arcadia (MD) High School, she was building a boat under orders from God. At the end of the episode, we understood God’s purpose. The boat became a link between Joan’s recently paralyzed brother, Kevin, and their father, Will Girardi. At the beginning of the next episode, “Just Say No,” Joan finds a middle-aged lady (God) putting up a sign for a yard sale on Saturday at . . . Joan’s house! Guess what God wants Joan to do?

Things get complicated when our heroine falls for Clay, a self-absorbed guy who mans the high school radio station and asks if Joan wants to “hang out” on Saturday. His advances feel slightly creepy, especially when the subplot involves Will, as chief of police, investigating a rape case. But Joan is smitten, and when a vending machine repairman (God, of course) reminds Joan of the yard sale, she says she wants to have a social life. “Romantic love!” God says. “I’m proud of that, some of my best work.” Joan is miffed: “This guy likes me and you want to talk about the mysteries of the universe!” God: “Sure, but aren’t you busy on Saturday?”

Rape becomes the central theme of the episode when Joan begins going through the basement and finds dark paintings by her mother. It turns out, as Helen and Will discuss privately, that Helen was raped as a young woman and these painting express her distress. Will urges her to tell Joan, for her protection. No, Mom says, “This is my call!”

Joan listens to God and holds the yard sale, but Clay comes by anyway to flirt with her and, it turns out, to steal Dad’s chief’s badge. When Joan learns about this, she demands the badge back and gives up her crush on Clay. On the bus home, a man reading a newspaper (God, aren’t you catching on yet?) tells Joan, “You should be nicer to your mother.”

Joan: Is this about those paintings?
God: Where do you think that comes from in a person?
Joan: What happened to her? Is that why she’s so weird about me dating? How bad was it?
God: It was evil, and I don’t throw that word around. This is my stop. (God gets up to exit bus)
Joan: You can’t leave! God! God!

Back home, Will tells Helen he has been working on a rape case.

Helen: I know.
Will: How do you know?
Helen: Because whenever you’re working on a rape case, you get very quiet, and you grind your teeth in your sleep. We’ve talked about this before. You can’t fix what happened to me, no matter how many rapists you put away.
Will (down on his knees): I need you to tell Joan. I don’t know why, but I really need it, Helen. Maybe because I’m afraid of her not knowing how close it is to her, all of the time. Please do this for me!

As the final music rises, Mom looks at Dad, then slowly walks upstairs to Joan’s room. She knocks and says, “I have something to tell you.”

Joan says, “I know.”