To Anne Rice, With Love (Music for Mondays)

I’ve been on vacation since July 28th. On July 29th, you let the world know you are leaving the Church, and Christianity, in “the name of Christ.” Soon thereafter, the whole blog-o-sphere was on fire with “what it all means” posts. The one I liked, I posted on our Facebook page.

But I was on vacation, see, and sorry—I wasn’t going to write a post about you pulling a “crazy Ivan” and leaving the Church. I promised my wife that I wouldn’t post, and I’m a man of my word. Besides, there was too much to do and too much to see in Washington D.C. Like seeing the museums of the Smithsonian, the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Capitol, the White House, and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. All worthy of future posts. But in the back of my mind, Anne, I still thought of you.

And I remembered you again when I came across the passage in Genesis where Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. I’m sure you are familiar with this story Anne, because it comes right after Abraham had bargained with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah if he could find 10 righteous men in them.

But he still persisted: “Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time. What if there are at least ten there?” “For the sake of those ten,” He replied, “I will not destroy it.”(Genesis 18:32)

It appears that when taking the census, Abraham came up short, because the city was destroyed in the very next chapter. One family, that of a fellow named Lot was found, and they were warned to get out of town with one condition…don’t look back.

But Lot’s wife looked back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.(Gen 19:26)

Anne, this all happened a few chapters after the flood (like déjà vu all over again). But maybe you believe everything in the Bible is allegorical. Some is, some isn’t. You have to trust the Church to lead you in this, but that is where you and I part company, see?  Now, Paul and Barnabus parted company too and the world didn’t end. But Barnabus never left the Church either.

Anyway Anne, this is getting long. The thing is, I drove to D.C. and drove back, as it takes about 8 hours(one way) from where I live. In my old van, without satellite radio, the reception goes bad on the radio, so we threw some cassette tapes into the stereo (I said it was old!) and these songs came up on the course of our drive home. They reminded me of you again, and here they are.

Depeche Mode, Personal Jesus. I don’t know if this is what you have in mind Anne, but it is a far cry from what Marie of the Incarnation did.

YouTube Preview Image

Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit.  ”Overboard and self-assured? That’s what it seems like to me. Oh, and “a denial” too. But don’t you fret, because stronger people than us have denied Christ (just ask St. Peter).

YouTube Preview Image

Stevie Wonder, Higher Ground. Then this came on, Anne, and I thought: “Sheesh!—I wish Anne could hear this old tape (recorded in 2005), because maybe this is what she is thinking?!”

YouTube Preview Image

Elton John, Rocket Man. But then Elton John came on and sang this Bernie Taupin song that made me think you are going to be “burning out your fuse up (t)here alone,” if you aren’t careful. Anne…you’re not being careful—it’s lonely out in space!

YouTube Preview Image

Blondie, Heart of Glass. Seriously, this came on next. Anne, I hope you don’t feel like this!

YouTube Preview Image

Simple Minds, Don’t You Forget About Me. It’s weird, Anne, but the next song on the loop that reminded me of your situation was this one. Sure, the tune is from the movie “The Breakfast Club”, but now, in this context, it means something different to me. “Will you recognize Me? Call My name? Or walk on by…”

YouTube Preview Image

Journey, Seperate Ways. I’m not making this up!

YouTube Preview Image

U2, Mysterious Ways. Do you really think you have the Church all figured out Anne? You know, Thomas Aquinas had a personal revelation experience and afterwards,  he never wrote a single word again. He said everything he had ever written prior to that experience was like so much straw. She moves in mysterious ways Anne.

YouTube Preview Image

One day you will look back
And you’ll see where
You were held 

how by this love
while you could stand there
You could move on this moment
Follow this feeling

Ok, that is all of the songs that I heard on my drive home yesterday that made me think of you. This last one, I heard today on the way back from work.

Madness, Our House. It’s crowded, it’s loud, it’s a house full of sinners. And trust me, “She’s the one (you’re) going to miss in lots of ways.”

YouTube Preview Image

Come back soon Anne! We’ll leave the light on for you.

For All the Saints: Edith Stein


Guest Post by William “Mac” McCarthy
My dormitory neighbor from 40+ years ago, who posted on 
the Martyrs of Compiègne in July, is back with some powerful material on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born to a Jewish family and still widely known by her given name of Edith Stein. I’ll pass along the material just as Mac sent it to me—only lacking his careful footnoting. There’s a lot here for reflection and inspiration:

“We are travelling East,” Last Letters from a Martyr

St. Edith Stein, 1891-1942, feast day August 9, also called Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, brilliant German philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun . . .The Nazis killed her at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, for being a Jew. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and named Patroness of Europe along with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden in 1999.

The walls of our monasteries enclose a narrow space. To erect the structure of holiness in it, one must dig deep and build high, must descend into the depths of the dark night of one’s own nothingness in order to be raised up high into the sunlight of divine love and compassion.

Not every century produces a work of reform as powerful as that of our Holy Mother (Saint Teresa of Avila, 16th century). Nor does every age give us a reign of terror during which we have the opportunity to lay our heads on the executioner’s block for our faith and for the ideal of our Order as did the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne [martyred at the Paris guillotine, July 17, 1794]. But all who enter Carmel must give themselves wholly to the Lord. Only one who values her little place in the choir before the tabernacle more highly than all the splendor of the world can live here, can then truly find a joy that no worldly splendor has to offer.”—Edith Stein, Laetare Sunday, March 31, 1935

Seven years after she wrote those words, Edith Stein had to “leave her little place in the choir before the tabernacle” to ride away with two S.S. officers. A week later, she was put into a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish family. She was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (Prussia), now Wroclaw, Poland. Her father was a lumber merchant who died before her second birthday. Her mother, Auguste Stein, a strong woman, took over the business and it prospered. Throughout her life, Edith remained a devoted daughter, beloved sister and favorite aunt.

Highly intelligent, Stein earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy, summa cum laude, at the University of Freiburg in 1916 under Edmund Husserl. Husserl was the founder of phenomenology, an analytical approach to human consciousness. Husserl considered Stein his best doctoral student, and she was his personal assistant for a time. Her own original research and writing in the field was cited by well known scholars, such as Max Scheler. Largely because she was a woman, Stein was unable to obtain a position as a university professor. Nevertheless, she remained an active and influential philosopher all her life. Her later scholarly writing focused on knowledge and faith.

In 1921, during a summer stay at the home of some philosopher friends, Stein picked up and read the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582, Spanish mystic, founder of the Order of Carmelites Discalced, and Doctor of the Church). Stein was profoundly moved by St. Teresa’s message that the search for God is no mere intellectual exercise but rather a relationship of love and complete surrender. After studying Catholic teachings in the catechism and the missal, she was baptized on January 1, 1922.

From 1923 until 1931, Stein taught and lived at the secondary school and Catholic teachers’ college of the Dominican Sisters in Speyer, Germany. Then she taught at the Pedagogical Institute in Munster until 1933. In those years she translated works by John Henry Cardinal Newman and Saint Thomas Aquinas into German. It was said she could read and understand Latin just as quickly as she could German.

She also spoke to women’s groups all over Germany about the role of women in modern society. Stein was convinced that the challenges women faced in the professional world were best addressed by spiritual and intellectual reflection. Her message was grounded in the power of faith. She was an unpretentious, but captivating speaker.

Like the saint who had inspired her conversion, Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein had a natural, warmhearted amiability. The abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Beuron, who was her spiritual director in the years before she entered Carmel, described her as follows:

“I have seldom met a person in whom so many and so laudable characteristics were united. At the same time, she remained entirely a woman with tender and almost motherly sensitivities. Mystically gifted, she was unpretentious with simple people, scholarly with scholars, a seeker with seekers, l would almost say a sinner with sinners.”

In 1933, Stein lost her teaching position in Munster. Hitler and the National Socialist Party had forbidden Jews to teach. On October 14, 1933, she entered the Carmel in Cologne. She had long desired to enter the Carmelite Oder, but previously put off such a step, largely out of consideration for her elderly orthodox Jewish mother, who would be crushed by a separation from her daughter. Now, her options were Carmel or emigration. That year, she wrote, “There’s nothing to regret about the fact that I can’t continue to lecture. To me a great and merciful Providence seems to be standing behind it all.” Dr. Edith Stein became Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce—Teresa Blessed by the Cross.

After the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938, there was no avoiding the danger from the Nazis. Edith Stein worried that she was endangering the lives of her fellow sisters in Cologne. She was granted permission to transfer to the Carmel in the village of Echt in the Netherlands and arrived there on December 31, 1938. Her older sister, Rosa, who had converted to Catholicism in 1936, joined her there in July of 1939. Rosa lived in a guest room. She served as the portress for the convent and then as an extern sister who had contact with the outside world.

“Rosa, come, we are going for our people.”—Edith Stein to her sister, at the front gate of Carmel Echt, shortly after 5:00 in the afternoon, Sunday, August 2, 1942

In the early 1940’s, Father Jan Nota was a young Dutch Jesuit scholar assigned by his superiors to help Edith Stein ready her book, Finite and Eternal Being, for publication. It had been previously set for publication in Germany in 1936, but anti-Jewish laws had prevented that. His last visit with her provides a happy glimpse of Edith Stein only twenty-four days before her death:

I saw Edith Stein for the last time on July 16, 1942. That is the day the Carmelite Order celebrates as its patronal feast, “Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” in commemoration of the first Carmelite friars who, back in the thirteenth century, established their life of prayer in the mountains near Haifa. When I arrived at the convent (Carmel Echt), Edith Stein asked me to deliver a homily at the Holy Hour. I felt a little nervous, having never preached in public since my ordination, but Edith Stein directed me to some beautiful Scripture texts found in the Carmelite Office and helped me to put the sermon together. In fact, she almost wrote it herself. Yet she did it all in a friendly, unassuming way, happy to have me take her suggestions. It occurred to me that Edith Stein’s intellectual talents had in no way impaired the feminine side of her personality. She was anxious that I take back enough food for the return journey. She loved to show me pictures of her family, and of Husserl and Scheler too.—Father Jan Nota, S J.

Ten days later, on Sunday July 26, the Dutch Catholic Bishops’ letter of protest against the persecution of the Jews was publicly read in all Catholic parishes. The public reading infuriated the Nazis, who took it as an act of defiance. They had previously forbidden public protest by Dutch churches. In retaliation, the Nazis went back on their promise that “Jewish Christians” would be left unmolested. They decided on death for all “Catholic Jews.” As an extra cruelty, they rounded up their roughly 300 “Catholic Jew” victims on August 2, the next Sunday following the letter’s public reading.

The Nazis came for Edith and Rosa Stein at five in the afternoon. The sisters were gathered in the chapel for meditation. It was Edith’s turn read at the beginning of the meditation, and she had to stop when the prioress sent for her. Two S.S. officers stood at the Carmel grille and told her she had five minutes to pack her things. After hasty farewells and requests for prayers, Stein went out and joined Rosa, who was waiting at the convent gate. The street had begun to fill with local residents who were incensed by the round up. Rosa was upset, and Edith took her by the hand saying, “Rosa, come, we are going for our people.” She meant the Jewish people. They walked hand in hand to the corner where a van waited. It all took just a few minutes.

What follow are Edith Stein’s last letters, written July 24 thru August 6. The first two, written before the S.S. came for her on August 2, discuss her efforts to emigrate with Rosa to Switzerland. The last letters were written from a Nazi detention center in the Netherlands.

Letter (in French) to the Prioress of Carmel Le Paquier, Switzerland

Echt, July 24, 1942
My dear Reverend Mother,

Today we received your good letter. I thank you with all my heart for being willing to accept me as a member of your dear family—yours and that of all my dear sisters. I am unable to tell you how touched I am by your goodness and even more that of the Good God. You will understand it even better after you have heard the history of our lives and that of our family. We will now see if it is possible to get permission to leave the Netherlands. But it will probably take much time—months I suppose. I shall have to be content with such a promise.

Our dear Reverend Mother and my sister Rosa will add a few lines. Again, a thousand thanks, my dear Reverend Mother, and the expression of my respectful love in Jesus Christ.

Your very little and humble, unworthy,
Sr.Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, OCD

Letter to Auguste Perignon, a former teaching colleague in Speyer, Germany

Echt, July 29, 1942
Pax Christi!
Sincere thanks for your kind note. R.I.P. for your dear brother. You will be grateful that he has found release. Since you are informed about us, I need only tell you the latest: Switzerland wishes to open its doors to my sister Rosa and myself, since the only cloistered monastery in our Order in that country—Le Paquier in the Canton Fribourg–will receive me, and a Convent of the Third Order Carmelites an hour away (from the Carmel), my sister. The two houses have certified, to the aliens’ office of the police, that they will provide for us for our lifetimes. The big question remains: will we be given permission here (by the Nazi occupation forces) to leave (the country). In any case, it will probably take a long time. I would not be sad if it did not come. After all, it is no slight matter to leave a beloved monastic family the second time. But I will accept whatever God arranges. Will you please tell them in Speyer and Kordel about this and ask for prayers?
To you and all who continue to think of me, cordial greetings. In Corde Jesu, your
Teresa Benedicta a Cruce

Letter to her Prioress at Camel Echt

Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 4, 1942

Dear Mother and Sisters,

During the past night we left the transit-station A. (Amersfoort) and landed here early this morning. We were given a very friendly reception here. They intend to do everything possible to enable us to be freed or at least that we may remain here.* (*In the margin at this point in the letter is written, “Aug. 5: Is no longer possible.”)

All the Catholics are together and in our dormitory we have all the nuns (two Trappistines, one Dominican), Ruth (Kantorowicz), Alice (Reis), Dr. (Lisamaria) Meirowsky, and others are here. Two Trappist fathers from T. (Tilburg, Holland)) are also with us. In any case, it will be necessary for you to send us our personal credentials, our ID cards, and our ration cards. So far we have lived entirely on the generosity of others. We hope you have found the address of the Consul and have been in touch with him. We have asked many people to relay news to you. The two dear children from Koningsbosch (Annemarie and Elfriede Goldschmidt) are with us. We are very calm and cheerful. Of course, so far there has been no Mass and Communion; maybe that will come later. Now we have a chance to experience a little how to live purely from within. Sincerest greetings to all. We will probably write again soon.

In Corde Jesu, your B.
When you write, please do not mention that you got this.

(Enclosed in this letter were a note to the Carmel from her sister Rosa and a message to the Swiss Consulate in Amsterdam that said, “Enable us as soon as possible to cross the border. Our monastery will take care of travel expenses.”

Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt

Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 5 (1942)

My dear Ones,

A R.C. nurse from A. (a Red Cross Nurse from Amsterdam) intends to speak today with the Consul. Here, every petition (on behalf) of fully Jewish Catholics has been forbidden since yesterday. Outside (the camp) an attempt can still be made, but with extremely little prospect. According to plans, a transport will leave on Friday (August 7). Could you possibly write to Mere Claire in Venlo, Kaldenkerkeweg 185 (the Ursuline Convent) to ask for our (my) manuscript (of The Science of the Cross) if they have not already sent it. We count on your prayers. There are so many persons who need some consolation and they expect it from the Sisters.
In Corde Jesu, your grateful

Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt


Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 6, 1942

Dear Mother,

A Mother Superior from one of the convents arrived last evening with suitcases for her child and now offers to take some short letters along. Early tomorrow a transport leaves (Silesia or Czechoslovakia??).

What is most necessary: woolen stockings, two blankets. For Rosa all the warm underwear and whatever was in the laundry; for us both towels and wash cloths. Rosa also has no toothbrush, no Cross and no rosary. I would like the next volume of the breviary (so far I have been able to pray gloriously). Our identity cards, registration cards (as Jews), and ration cards.

A thousand thanks, greetings to all, Y.R.’s grateful child,

(P.S.) 1 habit and aprons, 1 small veil.

The letter of August 6, 1942, was the final letter. Early on Friday, August 7, at the railway station in Schifferstadt, Germany, a woman in dark clothing inside a sealed transport hailed the stationmaster who was standing on the platform. She identified herself as Edith Stein and asked him to pass her greetings and a message to friends who lived there. The message was, “We are travelling east.”

The transport carrying Edith and Rosa Stein arrived at Auschwitz on Sunday, August 9. All the women and children as well as most of the men were immediately gassed. They were buried in a mass grave.

None of the Jewish Catholics mentioned in Stein’s letter of August 4 survived Auschwitz. Alice Reis was a nurse. She had converted to Catholicism in 1930. At her baptism in Beuron, Germany, the godmother standing next to her was Edith Stein. Stein first met Ruth Kantorowicz in Hamburg when Ruth was three years old. In 1934, they became friends when Ruth joined the Catholic Church. Kantorowicz was also a Ph.D. From 1935 on, she often typed Stein’s manuscripts. When the Nazi’s came for her on August 2, she was living at the Ursuline Convent in Venlo and had been typing Stein’s manuscript for The Science of the Coss. That is why Stein’s letter of August 5 discusses a manuscript being sent to her from that convent.

All the accounts of survivors from the detention camp in the Netherlands that mention Edith Stein agree on her remarkable calm and leadership in the camp. One survivor’s account was as follows:

It was Edith Stein’s complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners. There was a spirit of indescribable misery in the camp; the new prisoners, especially, suffered from extreme anxiety. Edith Stein went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping, and consoling them. Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.

Thanks to Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc

Cradle Catholics who grew up in the tumultuous years following Vatican II, my husband and I as children learned virtually nothing about saints. Greg told me yesterday morning he first heard of Joan of Arc from a Brady Bunch episode; I learned a bit about her in my high school church youth group, but dismissed her as a nut case.

I’ve been curious about Joan of Arc ever since I read about her in Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints earlier this year. So I rented Victor Fleming’s 1948 movie on Netflix. I recommend this movie to anyone who wants to learn some basics about this remarkable saint. Older children and teens can also learn a lot about St. Joan by watching this movie.

When this movie came out, Fleming (at left)  already was well known for directing the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. He was a sought-after director during Hollywood’s Golden Age. His Joan of Arc, which garnered seven Academy Award nominations and two Academy Awards, stars Ingrid Bergman as Saint Joan and José  Ferrer as the beleaguered King Charles VII of  France. While Joan of Arc marked Ferrer’s Hollywood debut, the film turned out to be Fleming’s last. He died at age 59 of a heart attack shortly after Joan of Arc’s release.

Over the course of several days, Greg and I and our 10-year-old son have been watching Joan of Arc on our wide-screen TV. We finished it up yesterday. To be sure, the Technicolor movie is pure Hollywood – obviously painted backdrops, heavy use of dramatic lighting and an emotional musical score to underline key moments in St. Joan’s life and martyrdom. Nonetheless, the movie is a good introduction to this remarkable saint and I am grateful we’ve been able have our son meet her. 
The movie makes it clear the illiterate peasant girl’s motivations to overcome English occupation of French soil were purely spiritual. I hungered for still more information about this holy woman and military leader.  I’ve ordered Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, based on the recommendation of  blog reader Anujeet. Mark Twain, a devout unbeliever, spent 12 years researching Joan of Arc and another two years writing about her.  His conclusion? “She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” 

Dear readers, I will keep you posted as I make my way through Twain’s book. In the meantime, I wanted to share a wonderful prayer to St. Joan of Arc. 

In the face of your enemies, in the face of harassment, ridicule, and doubt, you held firm in your faith. Even in your abandonment, alone and without friends, you held firm in your faith. Even as you faced your own mortality, you held firm in your faith. I pray that I may be as bold in my beliefs as you, St. Joan. I ask that you ride alongside me in my own battles. Help me be mindful that what is worthwhile can be won when I persist. Help me hold firm in my faith. Help me believe in my ability to act well and wisely. Amen.

Because Hundreds of Miles from Home, I Still Belong

A reader who uses the handle bo_leggs made a comment on Webster’s post  Wednesday that hit home with me. The post was about churches that close down in the summer months. bo_leggs wrote: “One of the big differences between Catholics and Protestants is that a Catholic belongs to every Catholic Church in the world. Protestants belong only to their local church.” This is one aspect of the faith lifelong Catholics such as myself might take for granted. But as Frank wrote last year, going to Mass on vacation is easy.

I visited Toronto for a few days last month, tagging along with my husband, Greg, as he attended a conference at the University of Toronto. While he attended his conference,  I walked for miles, exploring Kensington Market,  Koreatown and the Art Gallery of Ontario. One morning, I felt called to attend Mass. It happened to be the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I just wanted a corner of contemplation amid the bustling big city.

A few blocks from the Holiday Inn where we were staying is The Newman Centre Roman Catholic Student Centre and Parish at the University of Toronto. I arrived early for the 12:15 p.m. Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, which sits beside the center. The church, built in 1926, was small and simple, with lovely stained glass windows and contemporary artwork. (Pictured above)The choir stall sat behind the altar and there were no kneelers. In some ways, the building reminded me of an Anglican church. 

About 20 of us gathered to worship; most folks came alone and I discovered Canadians, or these Canadians at least, bow and do not shake hands at the sign of peace. We stood and bowed instead of kneeling during the consecration. Otherwise, the liturgy was what I have experienced my entire life. The Dominican priest celebrating the Mass, Fr. Marcos Ramos, OP, spoke about St. Mary Magdalen and the important role that she and other women of the early Church played in telling the Good News of the Resurrection. And he reminded us to remember to look for Christ in the people we encounter. 

When Mass was finished, I asked some parishioners in the foyer for directions to the building where my husband’s conference was being held. A young man offered to walk me a few blocks to the building. “I’m heading in that direction.”  We chatted as we walked and I learned he was a native of Ontario and preparing to attend law school at the University of Alberta. This encounter felt ordinary but in truth it was extraordinary  because we had nothing in common except the faith we share. 

Because the Church offers the fullness of God’s truth, it is a universal church. It exists in all over this earth and in the heavenly realm as well. Perhaps those other worshipers attend Mass at this church on the University of Toronto campus every day. I was passing through. Those differences didn’t matter. I felt a deep sense of belonging because we all were sharing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As the Newman Centre’s website states: “Each time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, it is our most intimate union with the Lord. In Communion we share in the life and work of Christ. This meal unites us with every other believer around the table. Each of us, as we absorb the body and blood of Christ, is empowered to bring some share of his life to all we meet.”

Thanks to the Friends I’ve Made Through CL

The other night, I hosted a potluck for the fledgling faith-sharing group forming here in Central New Jersey. The foods were as eclectic as we are: I offered a pasta and eggplant dish my husband had prepared; G., who grew up in Ecuador, brought plantain empanadas he had spent hours preparing; P. brought desserts in the style of her native Paraguay; our parish priest brought a Key Lime pie; and A. brought a scrumptious walnut cake prepared by his wife. A young professor of Italian from Florence joined us late and enjoyed all our goodies.

A year ago, I didn’t know most of these folks. Now here we were, gathered to share a meal, watch a short movie about AIDS in Uganda, and talk about how Christ can help us realize there is more to our lives than the sum of our problems.

Christ shows Himself through the people we encounter, including my new friends in the Communion and Liberation movement. I learned about Communion and Liberation (CL) from reading on this blog about Webster’s enthusiasm for this lay ecclesial movement. I am not a fan of joining groups and it took me a long time to attend a School of Community, CL’s weekly catechesis. CL’s purpose is “the education to Christian maturity of its adherents and collaboration in the mission of the Church in all the spheres of contemporary life.” 

I have a long way to go. I am by far the oldest member of the School of Community and consider myself the least mature spiritually. It’s a tribute to the Holy Spirit that I have learned so much from folks 10, 20, or more years younger than me. The biggest thing I have learned so far from these new friends is how much I have engaged in dualism—considering my religion as over here and the rest of the world, which rarely matches my ideals, as over there. I am learning Christ infuses our entire world, not just the sheltered world of parish life or my own private prayers and thoughts. This insight has made me much less harsh in my judgments of others. I am learning we’re all redeemable, even me.

Anyway, back to that potluck. As I tidied up from the gathering, I considered what varied paths led me and my CL friends to this place and time. How good God is to put before me friends who help me journey toward my destiny.

Two are better than one: they get a good wage for their labor.
If the one falls, the other will lift up his companion. Woe to the solitary man! 
For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up.

My Favorite Book (A Few Words for Wednesday)

This weekly slot was meant to feature poetry and has done so until today. But yesterday afternoon I picked up my favorite book again for the fourth or fifth time, and I can’t imagine writing about any other “Words” right now. You may know Norman Maclean (left) as the author of the story behind the movie “A River Runs Through It.” My favorite book is Norman Maclean’s other book.

“A River Runs Through It” has the best first line and the best last lines of any book I’ve ever read, except maybe Maclean’s other book. A slightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in Montana with a Presbyterian-minister father and a troubled brother (played by Brad Pitt in the Robert Redford movie), “A River Runs Through It” begins:

In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing. 

It ends, following the death of the author-narrator’s brother, a superb fisherman:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

I am haunted by Young Men and Fire, Maclean’s other book, published posthumously in 1992 after Maclean had spent the last fifteen years of his life researching and writing a story that had haunted him since he was in his 40s. He died at age 87.

The story is the Mann Gulch fire, and both the fire and the haunting are summed up beautifully in the opening lines of Young Men and Fire:

It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story. I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass. 

Maclean says “the East” but means Chicago. For forty years he was a revered professor of English at the University of Chicago and wrote only scholarly works until his retirement in the 1970s. Then he set out to do what most of my memoirs clients do, nothing more, nothing less: set down a few stories for his children. The result was A River Runs Through It and Other Stories—three in all, including the fabulous title “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’” While the title story concerns Maclean’s family life as a child and young man, the other two pieces in the book are about his forest experiences in late adolescence. He fought fires in the West when he was only fifteen, so the story of thirteen college-age boys dying in “a blowup in tall, dead grass” was something he always identified with.

This will be a very long post if I don’t set some limits to it. So let me do two more things only: tell you why I love this book so much and give you part of the ending of the book. You’ll have to read Young Men and Fire to read all of the ending.

Young Men and Fire is a work about young men by an old man who stood where the young men stood and fought fires as they did. MacLean wrote, “The problem of identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”

Young Men and Fire is the work of a man who never stopped searching for the meaning of existence. Maclean dedicated his retirement years to reconstructing what happened to the young Smokejumpers from the moment they landed full of youthful confidence “up gulch” from the fire to the final moments when, the fire having “blown up” and rushed toward them on a steep hillside in high flammable grass on the hottest of August days, they scrambled desperately for the ridge where they knew the fire would wane. Only two young men and their leader made it alive. Did the leader’s “escape fire” (you’ll have to read the book) cause the deaths of some of the fallen? And what did the fallen experience as they fought for their final breaths in a fire that suffocated them before it burned them?

Maclean offers a beautiful answer to the latter question:

Although we can enter their last thoughts and feelings only by indirection, we are sure of the final act of many of them. Dr. Hawkins, the physician who went in with the rescue crew the night the men were burned, told me that, after the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this final time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill, which on that slope is nearly east. Ranger Jansson, in charge of the rescue crew, independently made the same observation.

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky. 

This is almost but not quite the end of Young Men and Fire. You will have to read it yourself to reach the final lines. They will hit you like a haymaker.

The best way to tell you how much I love this book is this: On one of our final trips together, my father, then an old man, and I traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to see my uncle (Mom’s brother), a retired rancher. In our rental car, I set out alone one morning along the road that winds south with the Missouri, until I reached what are known as the Gates of the Mountains, the place where the Missouri flows northward out of the Rockies and from there onto the Great Plains. One of the first gulches inside the Gates is Mann Gulch. Just downriver (north) of Mann Gulch, I hopped a charter boat and asked to be dropped off upriver at a place where I could climb into Mann Gulch. I was dropped at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon, and I then climbed the side of Meriwether to a place where I could look into Mann. Here is the picture I took from that vantage point:

The far hillside is the one up which the young men raced against fire.

Norman Maclean wrote two great books in his last twenty years, his seventies and eighties. I am now 59, and if I can write one book half so good as either of these before I’m done, you can punch my ticket. But even if I don’t write one good book, I want to live my last years as Norman Maclean did, searching for the truth—and as the young men did too, facing the top of the hill, “nearly east.”

Because of Trinitarian Love

The other night, my husband and I  listened on the family computer as our son, hundreds of miles from home, DJ’d an alternate-rock radio station. Not quite 14, our son had never been on the radio before; the stint is part of a camp he’s attending for high schoolers interested in communications. We could hear how nervous he was, and how joyful, too.

For me and Greg, raising our sons means imbuing them with all the love and faith we can, and then offering them opportunities to fly on their own. We strive, most imperfectly, to reflect in our family life the Trinitarian nature of our God.

Unlike Jews and Muslims, Christians do not see God as a solitary figure; God is three co-equal persons in one. God gave His son everything; including His own divinity. When Christ ascended, he left us the Holy Spirit. Each person of God is co-equal, co-powerful, and co-eternal. This Triune God reflects the way we humans thrive; not in isolation, but in community. And I believe it reflects the way God wants us to love our children; to lead them down the paths of their own destinies toward Him.

Every human being who ever lived was willed into existence by this Triune God. His immeasurable love calls us to live in relationship with one another. Like the Trinity, we are distinct persons and yet we are inseparable from one another. 

The central truths of our faith are not easy to fathom. Lance McNeel, a Catholic painter from Texas, uses abstract art to illuminate them. (His painting, The Blessed Trinity, is above)  ”While abstraction does not create the same degree of narrative detail as that found in classical artwork, I believe that it can provide a more powerful image to describe the mysteries that we as humans cannot understand intellectually.”.A pastoral letter last year from the United States Conference of Bishops put it this way: “… like the Persons of the Trinity, marriage is a communion of love between co-equal persons, beginning with that between husband and wife and then extending to all members of the family.”

And so it was our child, after talking on air about the weather in Maine and his reflections on a Chiddy Bang  song he had just discovered, called home.

Because Our Lord is Eucharistic

The church my family and I attend is nearly 100 years old and, as such, the sanctuary doesn’t have central air conditioning or heating systems. During this latest heat wave, the air conditioning unit broke. Starting August 1, we’ve been celebrating Sunday Masses downstairs in the Parish Hall.

Our Parish Hall is essentially our church basement. It’s a modest place with florescent lights, an industrial carpet and, most importantly, a working air conditioning system. As Webster just noted, Our Eucharistic Lord doesn’t take a vacation. When a priest consecrates bread and wine, it becomes Christ: body, blood, soul and divinity. And He gives us a part of Himself as a foretaste of heaven. Jesus tells us: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” He never mentioned the quality of the music, setting and the preaching, or the social class of communicants.

Sunday’s Mass was plain and reverent.  Our 10-year-old and I sat beside my husband, who was lectoring.  Because we have no organ or piano downstairs, three members of our Chant Club sang Gregorian chants and led us in some  hymns. There were many advantages to this makeshift church; because our church is often less than half full, families and couples often stake out a row or section as their own during Mass. We don’t have that luxury now; we all sit together, encountering faces and families we might normally not have noticed. In fact, the 11 a.m. Mass was standing room only. Our pastor is physically closer to us too, which gives us an opportunity to experience consecration in a much more intimate way. He had made an altar of a folding table, draping it with elegant altar linens.

And as our parish prayed together, I thought about Catholics who never have the luxury of air conditioning or a heated church or a comfortable office chair on which to sit during a makeshift Mass. Sunday’s readings, including Paul’s Letter to the Colossians spoke to me about the life of the parish family of which I am privileged to be a member.

First, Paul speaks of how individual Christians must approach their lives.

Brothers and sisters:

If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
For you have died,
and your life is hidden with Christ in God….

And then he speaks of how Christian communities work.

Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.

May God continue to bless those who encounter Him in the Eucharist and in the faces of their parish families.

Because God Does Not Take Six Weeks’ Vacation

I was walking down the street after Mass this morning when I passed one of the Protestant churches in town. On the signboard outside, beneath the four names of the female minister, the church announced: “No Services until after Labor Day.” I’m not sure this post couldn’t end here, but let me share a few thoughts that occurred to me by the time I reached my office, a couple of blocks away.

If I didn’t go to church for the next six weeks, something inside me would grow cold. That something is already lukewarm now and then, and it wouldn’t take long for it to freeze up entirely.

An argument can be made here for a full-time celibate priesthood, don’t you think? Father Barnes is away for two weeks, but he never would have left for more than a day if he didn’t have Father Hennessey, our wonderful “permanent” guest priest, to fill in for him.

Finally, it occurs to me that if God really exists, and His Son Jesus Christ really appeared on earth 2000 years ago and remains present in the Eucharist today, then a minister taking six weeks off is a bit like installing a hammock in your office and sleeping the summer away while your boss is working 24/7. If I were the boss, I’d fire you.

But maybe that’s just me.

(Note: Bliss Hammocks did not endorse this message.)

ADDED Wednesday 8/4/10:

Faithful follower of this blog Mujerlatina has suggested this alternate illustration, noting that it shows “the legendary Johnny Appleseed who imbues the perfect qualities of a folk hero on vacation: au natural; earthy; contemplative and, for the priests’ sake, celibate!  He was like a St. Francis of the Americas.”

Music for Monday: Ireland Forever

In honor of Frank, who started this weekly feature but is temporarily ashore, and while thinking of several friends from our parish who are in Ireland for the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Irish tunes and groups—though the last song here is technically neither. No religious uplift is intended or expected; and the post will probably draw some loud boos. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

I’ll start with a tune dedicated to my buddy Paul, whom I don’t see half enough these days. A few months ago, I saw a concert by some boys from the Galway village of Tuam in Paul’s company, and it was a happy night. First, the canned version—

YouTube Preview Image

And now a live version from last year, to show just how popular “The Saw Doctors” are, even in the USA, even after 25 years—

YouTube Preview Image

Next up are The Pogues, with a thought for my brother-in-law, another Paul. Now sailing happily somewhere in retirement, Paul was the first person to introduce me to Shane MacGowan and company—

YouTube Preview Image

Flogging Molly is an LA-based Pogues-type outfit, headed by Dublin-born Dave King and his wife, Bridget Regan (on tin whistle and fiddle). “What’s Left of the Flag” at least mentions rosary beads—the only Catholic reference I can make out. Am I missing something?

YouTube Preview Image

Perhaps not the most popular Irishwoman among Catholics is Sinead O’Connor. Sorry, but it is hard to top this version of “The Foggy Dew” sung with the most Irish of all modern bands, The Chieftains, even if Her Baldness did tear up a photo of JPII on SNL eighteen years ago.

YouTube Preview Image

“The Foggy Dew” is about the Easter Uprising of 1916. My favorite Irish tune concerns a later bunch of Troubles. You can make an argument that this is the greatest rock ’n roll song of all time.

YouTube Preview Image

There are many versions of this final song, one of the great Christian hymns, but nobody does it like The Dropkick Murphys. The hymn is English, the band is from Boston, but the tune is all Irish.

YouTube Preview Image