Thanks to Father Barnes III

My friend Julie read my post about marriage this morning and forwarded me an article that Father Barnes had shared with her. She said she had found it helpful, and I did too.

The article is “Designed for Sex” by J.  Bucziszewski, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. It takes my simplistic “13-year-old” argument about our bodies’ design a significant step or two further. (Sidebar: I appreciate the comments today, pro and con, from people who took pains to think through and express their understanding of marriage, gender, and sexuality.)

My point this morning was simply that when my father explained to me about homosexuality, when I was 13, my first reaction was, “How does that work? How do the bodies fit together?” This led me to consider that perhaps there was something in the design of our bodies that tells us how we should behave sexually, if, that is, we accept that God designed us.

After offering anecdotal evidence that young people are becoming disenchanted with casual sex (“hooking up”) in all of its permutations, that they are “beginning to sound like the children of third-generation Maoists,” Professor Bucziszewski bluntly asserts, “The fact is that we aren’t designed for hooking up.” The professor speaks as a member of my (boomer) generation and wryly notes that, “My generation may have ordered the sexual revolution, theirs is paying the price.” As the father of two daughters of “their” generation, I raise my level of attention.

It’s the next line that takes the argument further: “Our hearts and bodies are designed to work together.” That is, while casual sex may be convenient for our bodies, our hearts are engaged, sometimes in spite of ourselves, and casual sex is not convenient for our hearts. In this I hear echoes of Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation (CL), about which I will write the day I am confident I can do it credit. Father Giussani’s point, if I understand it correctly, is that the deepest desires of our heart are, yes, part of our design and therefore particularly valid. The deepest of all desires? For the infinite, the “Mystery,” God. Which, with wonderful, albeit somewhat circular logic, proves that God exists.

But I digress. And perhaps I waste words. Why not just give you a link to the Buczsizewski article and you can make your own sense of it?

Since it’s a long article, here are the professor’s four main themes, as laid out on the last page:

  1. “We ought to respect the principles of our sexual design.”
  2. “The human sexual powers have a purpose.”
  3. “The human design for procreation requires marital and family life.”
  4. “The spousal bond has its own structure, which both nourishes and is nourished by these institutions.”

Maybe this will help.

The picture shows my beloved Katie, Marian, and Martha jumping for joy over another brilliant post!

Because the Catholic Position on Marriage is the Only One that Ever Made Sense to Me

When I was 13 and Dad sat me down for Birds and Bees: The Advanced Course, I remember thinking, “Hunh?! Three years ago, he taught me about sex between a man and woman. I get that. The bodies fit together. God engineered it that way. But man and man? Woman and woman? What fits what?”

I report this 45 years later not to sit in angry judgment on anyone. I have friends who are homosexual. In professional theater, which I thought might be my profession when I was all of 17—either that or Episcopal minister—I became aware that there were many people of the homosexual persuasion. (We have since learned that the line does not stop at Episcopal minister, or Catholic priest, for that matter.) To work in theater, you had to work with homosexual people, and some of these people became my friends, for whom I still admit a certain fondness.

Fine. But with the innocence of a 13-thirteen-year-old boy utterly clueless about sex, I had this simple thought when first confronted with the notion of homosexuality as carnal action: What fits what? (1) I had a fundamental, innocent belief in God. (2) I believed that God made the world and that the world therefore is well engineered. (3) I could not understand the engineering of homosexuality. Ergo, God did not intend this to be a normal form of human interaction.

I still think that 13-year-old was on to something.

I was reminded of this last evening when I ran into a former client of mine, or rather I thought of the connection upon waking up this morning. Since 1988, I have worked—on again, off again, and now on again—with elderly people helping them write their memoirs. There’s more about this on my relatively undeveloped blog about that. Anyhow, I ran into a former client I’ll call Mr. Smith last night, and the encounter was a testament to marriage in the one-man, one-woman, one-life Catholic sense of the institution.

I have worked on over fifty memoirs since 1988. Mr. Smith’s was unique because it was not just Mr. Smith’s memoir but Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s memoir. When his son introduced me to him and I proposed the idea of writing his memoir, Mr. Smith demurred. Because it is my business to do so, I pressed the matter. Finally, I understood that Mr. Smith had no objection to publishing his memoir, so long as Mrs. Smith was an equal partner in the work.

So we invented a new form of memoir, in which the couple alternated chapters. First her ancestors, then his. First her birth and upbringing, then his. The two strands approached one another (the families spent summers on adjoining properties) until the book arrived at her chapter about meeting him and his about meeting her. This is a long way of saying that Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s marriage was one of the most beautiful I have ever observed, and I think their braided memoir was a proper testament to that beauty.

Mrs. Smith died a few years ago, and I ran into Mr. Smith last evening at a book event. Mr. Smith is relatively frail now, walking on a stick, but still radiating an unsurpassed kindness. You run into someone who knows Mr. Smith, and the first words out of their mouth usually are, “He is the nicest man!”

Mr. Smith is an old-line Yankee and therefore probably of the Protestant persuasion, though the Smiths’ religion never came up in their memoir. I wouldn’t doubt that his kindness is rooted in faith. But working closely with the Smiths, as I was privileged to do, I also observed an extraordinary kindness between them, a mutual respect as much him for her as her for him. They held hands in my presence. I’m sure they often held hands.

When I saw Mr. Smith last night, I recalled Mrs. Smith and told him what an inspiration their marriage had been to me in my marriage to Katie. I told him that Katie and I are celebrating our 25th next week and that it is my fond hope we will be as happy at our 50th as I observed the Smiths to have been in their later years. With simple words and a quiet smile, he acknowledged his love for Mrs. Smith.

In the old Boston library that hosted the book event, I noticed that Mr. Smith was seated behind a column, and I asked him if he didn’t want help moving to a seat with a better view. No, he said, he preferred this seat, because it was “close to my family.” He nodded sideward, and I saw then that his son and daughter-in-law were seated directly across the aisle in the sold-out room. I was touched by this. I knew he was referring to a closeness that was more than physical.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith are for me another confirmation of the fundamental wisdom of traditional marriage. In making a point, it’s usually good to look at the opposite, and I’ve tried to do that here. As a 13-year-old, I thought that homosexuality involves faulty engineering. As a 58-year-old, I observed that the opposite—especially in a committed, lifelong relationship—makes all the sense in the world. I think it always will.

Because I Am Happier Than Ever

As soon as I had published my post summarizing my first seven weeks of Catholic blogging, I realized that it was like several Stephen King novels: Hundreds of pages of build-up, then pffft, fizzle—whimper, no bang. Well, here’s the bang that post was missing: As a Catholic these eighteen months, I am happier than I have ever been.

I have written that Catholic women seem happy. I have even dared to write that Catholic women are happy. I have described several happy Catholic men, like Father Barnes and Ferde, and a very happy Catholic couple, Frank and Carrie.

What about me?

See that guy sitting in his stocking feet outside a rented cottage in Ballygaw, County Dingle, last March? That’s me, a year after my conversion to Catholicism, completely at peace, really quite boundlessly happy. Let me count the ways:

I have never belonged to a community where I felt more at home—I have had many advantages in my life and I have belonged to some pretty fine groups of people. Don’t hold it against me. These are just the facts: My family was and is fantastic, grandparents, parents, siblings, in-laws, children, nieces, nephews, the lot. I was a Boy Scout. My parents belonged to several country clubs and sent me to cool summer camps. I attended private schools, including arguably the best boarding school in the world (Exeter) and the best small liberal arts college in America (Amherst). I became part of a world-famous theatrical troupe (“Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company”), where some of my best friends still are active. And for all that, I have never been anywhere, never belonged to any group, where I felt more welcome, more at home, more loved than I do every single morning at mass. Or any time I have coffee with Ferde or Father or Ellen or Carol.

I have not experienced this level of intellectual excitement since Exeter—I’ve been a Catholic long enough to know what they say about Catholics: We check our brains at the door. Or as one skeptic put it recently: Baaaaaaa! (sheep sound) Well, I’m here to tell you that in these eighteen months (and in the six months of RCIA that preceded my reception into the Church) I have known greater intellectual stimulation and challenge than I have since reading Crime and Punishment with Henry Ploegstra or The Hero with a Thousand Faces with Rod Marriott, both at Exeter. I can’t possibly list all the books I have read, nay studied, in the past two years, especially when preparing a presentation for Saturday morning men’s group. Let me just throw a couple of thousand-pagers at you: Kristin Lavransdatter and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You could take those two masterpieces to a desert island and never miss your mommy.

My marriage has never been better—
Katie and I celebrate our 25th anniversary next week. (In lieu of gifts, donations can be made to St. Mary Star of the Sea Church.) I can guarantee that we will be married for as long as God gives us both the health. We’ve had our ups and downs, mostly ups, but right now . . . I can’t express my gratitude adequately. Psalm 89 from today’s Office says it best: “I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord . . . ”

I have experienced death at close hand and found it beautiful—For years, I remarked how lucky our family was: Two parents, six siblings, eleven kids in the next generation, and not one death, not one serious accident, really not even one serious illness. Then I became a Catholic, and my father died. I can hear the skeptic saying, Ya see? See what happens when you convert? Here’s what happened: No one likes to lose a parent—losing Dad was a life-altering experience for me—but no one who lives a life of normal length can dodge losing a parent or two. So it’s not whether Dad died that matters, it’s how he died, and how I took that death. I can only say that my being a Catholic in those months of melanoma, increasing weakness and nausea, and finally hospice care was demonstrably good for me and good for him. For me, it all came down to the four nights I spent alone with him in his hospice room, with Dad in and out of consciousness and me reading to him from the Liturgy of the Hours. An angel, a male hospice nurse named Jerome, entered the room during one of those readings, and I will never forget the love.

My life is working—You know when things are clicking? When things just fit? That’s the way it is now, not only in my life, but in Katie’s life and, I dare say, in our children’s lives. Our business is surviving this downturn and, in fact, turning into something brand-new and exciting. Friends and family seem well, too. Will there be unpleasant surprises down the road? Of course. Life ends, doesn’t it? Something’s going to get us all, and that probably won’t be entirely pleasant.

But armed with my faith (yes, it’s like armor, but very comfortable), with my rosary in my right pants pocket and my breviary in my backpack, with the support of friends like Ferde, with the love and support of Katie, Martha, and Marian and above all with the love of God, I know that there is no challenge that cannot be faced. And meanwhile, I’m having an awful lot of fun.

Because I Feel What Chesterton Described

One of the joys of this blog is hearing from fellow Catholics across the U.S. and even around the world. An example today was a Dominican brother, “D.D.,” whereabouts unknown, who sent me a pertinent quote from Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

Br. D.D., O.P, was evidently responding in part to the descriptive statement beneath my blog title, explaining why I started writing: Asked by a friend why I had converted to Catholicism, “I was at a loss. I couldn’t say . . . ” I quote the good brother’s e-mail in full, without permission, but with sincere thanks, because it hits the big nail squarely on the head. Why couldn’t I say why I converted? Read on:

“Thank you for taking on the challenge to answer for your faith. I could not help but recall a quote from GK Chesterton about why we so often struggle to explain our faith. I thought I’d share:

“It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilisation to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilisation is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible. There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab.—GKC, Orthodoxy, Ch. 6

“He is one of the great converts and writers of the 20th century and there is some work towards his cause for canonization.

“Many blessings as your journey continues!”

Thank you, Brother. Thank you, Mr. Chesterton.

Because It’s OK for Catholics to Laugh II

I saw Stephen Colbert’s latest interview with Richard Dawkins last night and concluded that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is another reason YIM Catholic.

Apologies for the mandatory ad that precedes the five-minute video clip. The ad changes. Mine was Jack Daniels. To be clear: Jack Daniels is not one of the reasons YIM Catholic.

Pour yourself a Coke and give the link a click.

For His Love Endures Forever (Psalm 136b)

Seven weeks ago today, I published my first post. Recalling the reasons that one is Catholic—every day—is a blessed exercise. The result of seven weeks’ writing is a sort of mini-memoir. There are gaps in the story, which I will fill in, with your forebearance. But so far, this is the story, with apologies to the Psalmist:

I was blessed with a father who taught me that religion could be a manly pursuit,
for his love endures for ever.
I was born to a loving mother who taught me to pay attention to culture,
for his love endures for ever.
She taught me to love poetry,
for his love endures for ever;
and to read inspiring literature,
for his love endures for ever.

My pastor inspired me to think of being an Episcopal clergyman,
for his love endures for ever;
though I don’t think I ever would have had the guts to be a priest,
for his love endures for ever.
My grandmother converted to Catholicism,
for his love endures for ever,
But I did not . . . for 40 years . . . ,
for his love endures for ever.

I was blessed with brilliant mentors,
for his love endures for ever;
I was blessed with a loving wife,
for his love endures for ever;
and we were blessed with two beautiful daughters,
for his love endures for ever.

During my 40 years in the wilderness, I read about Joan of Arc,
for his love endures for ever.
I learned about St. Thomas More,
for his love endures for ever.
I watched inspiring TV melodramas,
for his love endures for ever,
And I read more inspiring poetry,
for his love endures for ever.

Then He placed a book by Fr. James Martin in my path,
for his love endures for ever.
And I began attending daily mass the following day,
for his love endures for ever,
in a truly beautiful church,
for his love endures for ever,
where I found a truly remarkable pastor,
for his love endures for ever.

I was inspired by the Catholics in front of me,
for his love endures for ever,
And I was blessed with wonderful new friends,
for his love endures for ever.
I considered returning to the Episcopal Church,
for his love endures for ever,
But I didn’t . . . ,
for his love endures for ever.

My father came to my first communion,
for his love endures for ever;
my father died six months to the day after my first communion,
for his love endures for ever.
I discovered that I was a Catholic in the time of a great pope,
for his love endures for ever.
I realized my debt to the Catholics who came before me,
for his love endures for ever.

I have learned a bit about Communion & Liberation,
for his love endures for ever.
I have begun attending Eucharistic Adoration,
for his love endures for ever.
I have learned something about angels and archangels,
for his love endures for ever.
And I have begun singing in the St. Mary’s choir,
for his love endures for ever.

My education as a “young Catholic” continues, but always, every single day, I try to remember to say with the Psalmist:

To the God of heaven give thanks,
for his love endures for ever.

Thanks to Father Barnes II

A quick post to pass along something Father Barnes sent out this morning. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a click, and how will you know if you’ve seen it if you don’t click?

Because of Bono and Me

I once could hear and then was deaf and now can hear again. I’m not talking about conversion. I’m talking about recovering from last night’s U2 concert. The pope is not a fan of rock concerts, as in hypnotic screaming mayhem. But isn’t BXVI giving Bono an audience? Well, I was in Bono’s audience last night.

Am I taking liberties with the usual format of Q: Why Am I Catholic? / A: Because of . . . ? Well, maybe. But since I can list my “great concert experiences” (*) on one hand, shouldn’t I be allowed some liberties?

Furthermore, it’s Sunday, our Lord’s Day, and this post might be a way of resting from the serious business of explaining “Why I Am Catholic.” You don’t buy that? I don’t buy it either. Read on.

* Since you asked, they were: (1) seeing Janis Joplin front “Big Brother and the Holding Company” at the Fillmore East in 1968; (2) sneaking through a window in the Mt. Holyoke College chapel to find myself on stage with James Taylor mid–”Carolina in My Mind,” circa 1970; (3) sitting again on stage, but this time in the UMass Amherst gymnasium and literally in front of the bass amplifier for Gracie Slick and the boys, a/k/a “Jefferson Airplane,” circa ditto; (4) taking my four-year-old daughter Martha to a “New Kids on the Block” gig at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, having her go all delirious over the opening act, then having her fall asleep in my arms as the Wahlbergs and their homies sang the first song, about 1990; and finally (5) going butt wild myself over “Speedway at Nazareth” during a Mark Knopfler–Emmy Lou Harris concert in Boston two or three years ago.

Now, I’ll always have Bono and me.

The back story: When Katie and I were traveling through Ireland with our daughters about seven years ago, I had a pair of Bono shades. (And if you want to see what Bono shades look like on another very holy person, check out this picture.) Somewhere around Sligo, I think, I began telling Martha and Marian that I was planning to write memoir called Bono and Me.

The second back story: We came to Chapel Hill Thursday and were informed by Marian that after the football game Saturday we would be going to “a tailgate” chez a friend of her friend Win. She said that there would a mariachi band at the tailgate. I jokingly said to tell Win that I wasn’t coming to any tailgate for anything less than U2. No, I did not know U2 was playing in Raleigh Saturday night. Saturday morning, Marian asked me if I wanted to see U2 that evening. What?! “Win will get tickets.” Win was my new best friend.

The concert: Think of a giant space spider pouncing at about the 40-yard-line of a major college football stadium, then letting down a 360-degree video screen on the heads of four teeny musicians from Ireland and you’ve got the picture. Bono asked, “How do you like our spaceship?” and referred to the video screens (which showed live action) as an attempt to create “intimacy on a grand scale.” They did.

Smartest thing the band did was building to a crescendo with some of their most recognizable tunes, especially “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” after a speech from Bono about rights abuses in Tehran, and “One,” as a sort of world-unifying anthem. Gotta hand it to the quartet: They’ve stuck together for thirty-plus years, and they’ve stuck to message. The concert was generous (over two hours), including two long encores. Most moving was a walk by the lead man around the outer ring of the stage with a boy named Brian from the audience, whilst Brian wore Bono glasses and Bono sang “City of Blinding Lights.” Halfway through the tune, the pair broke into a bounding, joyous run.

Because of Bono and Me? I am a Catholic, and that gives me joy. Last night, in the company of Katie, Marian, and Win, I experienced joy. Part of it was the concert. Part was the company. Part was the enormous harvest moon that hung overhead in the open-air stadium, directly in front of Bono, no less. Part was getting into bed in one piece, with the pillow on reverb. But joy it was. So there is an equivalence here, a Bono=joy=Catholic=me, and if I’m not mistaken, he’s a good Irish Catholic lad himself. I’m Catholic, married to an Irish lass.

“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is still the greatest rock song ever written. And as we were reminded again last night, Sundays on this planet, God bless us, are never without their share of blood.

Because of “Joan of Arcadia” III

You know how God used to speak to a teenage girl on the TV show “Joan of Arcadia,” like a modern-day Joan of Arc? True story: Sometimes “Joan of Arcadia” speaks to me. Which amounts to a kind of Apostolic transmission, from God’s mouth to my ear through Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn).

As Adam Rove (Chris Marquette) would say, Cha.

Latest example: I had just finished a post about St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her calling (love) and my singing (bass). This had left questions rolling around in my brain about talents, as in mine, and how Christ, in a parable, asks us to use them. But what exactly are talents—in my case, in anyone’s case—and how should they be used? I hopped on a JetBlue flight for RDU with Katie to see our younger daughter, MRB, at UNC; fired up the DVD player to watch more tales of “Joan”; and what was the next CBS episode in prospect for this series of posts about a long-cancelled show that no one asked me to write? None other than “The Boat,” in which Joan discovers she has a talent she never knew she had and she’s not sure she needs and would like to trade in. Double cha. Did I heard God saying “Cha-cha-cha”?

Season 1, episode 4: Walking the corridors of Arcadia High one day, Joan runs into God, who is looking very spiffy indeed as a naval officer. In previous episodes, detailed in this post and in this one, the Almighty asked our heroine to get a job at a bookstore, to take AP chemistry, and to learn chess—each of which was a stretch for the typical teen with good heart and underutilized mind. Now God asks Joan to build a boat. When Joan expresses annoyance, God has a good comeback: Last time He asked someone to build a boat, it saved the world.

Girardi family subplots swirl. Chief of police Will Girardi, a/k/a Dad (Joe Mantegna), is tracking what may be a serial cop killer, while trying to persuade Joan’s older brother, Kevin (Jason Ritter), newly paralyzed following a car accident, to take up wheelchair basketball. Meanwhile, Joan relents, finds a set of plans, and begins fulfilling God’s commandment in her basement. Miraculously, she seems to have a talent for boatbuilding—cutting pieces without measuring and finding that they fit perfectly.

Later that night, God calls—as the host of a call-in show on the radio Joan is listening to in her bedroom. Joan is sad because she just overheard Dad and Kevin arguing. Kevin is wallowing in self-pity and has refused to take up wheelchair basketball. Dad is a good dad and just doesn’t know how to communicate with his son anymore. The crisis between father and son will continue to escalate.

Voice on the radio: Our next caller is . . . Joan from Arcadia!
Joan (looking up from bed, puzzled): Who, me?
God on radio: Thanks for joining us on Chat Lines. What’s your question?
Joan: You’ll answer questions? (God doesn’t usually, not here)
God: Go ahead, Joan.
Joan (pulling herself together for this rare opportunity): I found I had this incredible talent I never had before. I love it, but it’s the wrong talent.
God: What would be the right talent?
Joan: Making things better between people I love?
God: What’s your question?
Joan: Can I trade?

Here my inner ear started to open, listening to God’s voice as transmitted by “Joan”:

God: Sometimes one talent is all talents. Everything that rises must converge. You’re doing great work, Joan. Important work. Be thankful for what you can do. Don’t trade it away. And don’t let anyone talk you out of it, no matter how reasonable they sound.
Joan: No tradesies?
God: Moving on to . . . Corrina, who has love problems!

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is the title of a story by Flannery O’Connor, but I say, let’s forgive God for this teeny bit of plagiarism; after all, he absolves us of so much. And God’s point is cool. Whatever the talent you’re given, follow it, use it, nurture it. Because “sometimes one talent is all talents”? What does that mean exactly? I think it means that whatever talent God gives us is ultimately important because it is God’s gift and therefore “more than all,” to borrow a phrase from e. e. cummings highlighted in a recent post. Above all: “Don’t trade it away.” Don’t think that you’d be better off with another talent and go off trying to be something you’re not, when all along God is telling you to be this. “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord,” the Invitatory Psalm 95 tells us each morning. So no matter who tries to convince you otherwise, stick with your talent, however humble. Thérèse of Lisieux knew she wasn’t cut out for prophecy or miracles; she understood that God had given her a “simple” gift, just love. It made her a saint and a Doctor of the Church.

Joan doesn’t listen, not yet anyway, and when Mr. Price (Patrick Fabian as the increasingly diabolic principal), calls her into his office and cruelly makes fun of her boatbuilding, she loses her mojo. This is Adam’s diagnosis when he walks into her basement that night and finds her in despair over not being able to continue the project. He then tells her how, first day of school, he tried to impress Price with his piano playing, which in Adam’s unconventional fashion included banging the keys with his elbow and playing a final glissando on the piano strings with his shoe. Price said, “You gotta be kidding.” Says Adam, “Since that day I can’t even whistle. Somewhere Price has got this coffin full of miraculous things kids could do before he stole them.”

Chief Girardi faces a similar crisis of confidence when his men think he’s not using the right approach to finding the “serial cop killer.” But he proves to be right in sticking to the book: Turns out the killings were not serial at all, and there was no cop killer involved. Or rather there was: the killer, in the second case, was a cop!

A final visit from God clears things up for Joan. She’s working late in the bookstore and talking with Adam, who has just asked her if she has a secret she’s not sharing. She is about to tell him about her talks with God when she hears a voice from the back of the store. It’s a little old lady. Joan never saw her come in.

Lady: You were about to tell Adam.
Joan: Did you give me a boat-making mojo and then take it away?
Lady=God: What did I tell you on the radio?
Joan: Not to let anyone talk me out of pursuing my project. You mean Price? Is what Adam said true? Is Price, like, evil?
God: The thing about fear is, it doesn’t leave room for anything else like beauty, purpose.
Joan: So did you just pop up to stop me from telling Adam?
God: I don’t pop. I abide. I’m eternal. Remember free will. It’s a burden asking someone to believe you. You don’t know how many burdens the boy is already bearing. Maybe you should take on some of his burdens.

In a final silent coda, Kevin wheels alone into Joan’s basement workshop, sees the boat skeleton for the first time, and smiles quizzically. Then he puts the cigarette he was about to light behind his ear, picks up Joan’s plans, and studies them. Then he sets to work fixing the boat. Dad walks in. He picks up the plans and the two agree that a couple of changes need making. It’s obvious that the two have something in common again, a boat they will build together. And as the exit music comes up, the camera pans to find Joan’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and then Joan looking into the workshop from a window . . . and . . . smiling.

I smile a lot watching this show. “The Boat” left me thinking of this blog again, perhaps a tiny talent that God has given me to use well. Which, if I do, could have untold positive consequences for others (you, gentle reader?) just as Joan’s boat venture helped reconcile Dad and Kevin. And above all not to make it into something it isn’t—not catechism (I don’t know enough to teach you), not prophecy (I don’t know what’s going to happen today, much less tomorrow), and certainly not politics (not my bag, man). Just a story here and there from a guy who found Catholicism through God’s grace and in 58 years has never been happier. Cha.

Survey #1: The Results are In!

For the first few hours after my post hit the Web, there were no answers to my question, “What poem has inspired you in your religious life?” and I started asking myself, “Don’t these people read?!” It was just about when I had started to lose faith (isn’t it always the way?) that a trickle turned to a stream, and I can now report to you a fine list of verse and other odds and ends that you might turn to next time you lose faith.

First—I should have predicted this—there were Psalms (especially 23) and hymns proposed. Of the latter, my favorite is “For All the Saints,” which happens to be the title of my very first post. Another suggestion, “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist Did Pray,” is new to me, mostly because, unlike “For All the Saints,” it is not featured in the Episcopal hymnal from which I sang as a young teen. The reader cited especially this lovely verse, praying for unity:

We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

A personal note on Psalm 23: I sometimes use it to put myself to sleep at night, but in the King James translation which I learned almost as early as I learned The Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. . . .” I understand that the current version in use in the Catholic liturgy is more accessible to the contemporary American ear, but every time I get to “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose,” I cringe. I am aware that this is not the desired response, that perhaps it is even confessable—a terrible moral quandary! But I digress.

Ferde proposed two items, one of them a poem and both too long to cite, but they’re good ones: “The Divine Comedy ought to get a mention here,” he wrote. “A little long to post, but what sticks with me is Dante’s polling of the population of hell.” My fishing buddy (as in fishers of men, usually, we don’t catch many real fish) went on: “If I can stray from poetry, James Agee’s short novel A Death in the Family is deeply spiritual. I read it over 40 years ago and it’s still with me. This novel and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with Walker Percy) are Agee’s only notable work. He squandered his enormous talent writing movie reviews for The Nation magazine, drinking to excess, and chain-smoking cigarettes. He got out of a cab in New York one afternoon and dropped dead right there on the sidewalk. Not yet 50.”

Of the poets cited, Francis Thompson (pictured here) gets a gold star, as The Hound of Heaven is the only poem cited by more than one reader. Father Hopkins (Gerard Manley) is probably the winner, though, not only because I have already written about him here (and all matters of taste on this blog are adjudicated finally by moi-même) but also because readers cited two of his poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire and God’s Grandeur, with its great final couplet (“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”). Meanwhile, I’ll give a silver star to W. H. Auden, since I had already written a post on his “Ballad of Barnaby,” which triggered this survey, which prompted yet another reader to cite Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Said the reader, “It’s not what you’d call upbeat, but it’s a great portrayal of our constant longing for something better, something which we as Christians find in God.”

There were votes for John Donne (“Holy Sonnet XIV“), William Butler Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium“), G. K. Chesterton (“The Ballad of the White Horse,” much too long to cite but available here), and the always perplexing Ezra Pound (“Ballad of the Goodly Fere“). Female poets included Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (“Aurora Leigh“) and (sweet!) “my Aunt, Sr. Marie Emmanuel Streit, S.C. (1904-1991) Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati,” who wrote “Aspiration”:

A wild canary flashes by,
(like arrow sped from unseen bow
To pierce a target in the sky!)
I watch its swift unswerving flight
And think how very glad I’d be
If I could wing as sure a way
O Heart of God, my goal, to Thee!

Finally, ’tis strange, there was a citation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, surely among the darkest of English-language plays but inspiring to at least one Catholic. I’ll leave you pondering this bit of verse from the Bard:

But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.