For I Was Blind And Could Not See

—Feast of St. Faustina

My youngest son and I went camping with the Cub Scouts last weekend. The weather was spectacular and although the leaves in the forest haven’t turned their brilliant Fall colors quite yet, the air was crisp and the sky was cloudless.

On Saturday afternoon, after a morning hike and a lunch of vienna sausages, trail mix, and other camping fare, the boys played organized games in a field next to our campsite. Several of these games included wearing blindfolds. One of them struck me particularly as an analogy for one of the reasons why I am Catholic.

The game I’m referring to is really quite simple: you simply try and walk in a straight line while blindfolded. First, you stand and face the finishing point, in this case another person about 50 feet away. You establish the mental reference point for your destination, and then you are blindfolded and told to walk to that spot.

Practically no one made it to the target. Most could not continue in a straight line. Many veered off course, some at significantly sharp angles. Walking blind will do that to you.

Aviators, who are trained to fly on their instruments alone, will tell you the perils of flying blind. They will tell you that you can’t trust your senses, but that you need to trust your instruments. I’ve heard stories of pilots feeling like all is well, completely unaware that they were flying upside down or sideways.

But let’s keep this simple and get back to the Cub Scouts trying to make it from point A to point B while blindfolded. To me, the Catholic Church is like a person who guides us along that imaginary line between point A, where we are, and point B, where we hope to arrive. That, quite simply, is back to God. And the goal, as we used to say in the Marine Corps, is to arrive “on time, and on target.”

I tried the other ways before, you know, the “no, I am not lost” route. Or the, “I can read this stuff by myself and figure it all out” route. These routes led me astray, much as the blindfold tricked these Cub Scouts, who to the best of their abilities, thinking they were walking straight ahead, veered 30 to 35 degrees to starboard (or to port, for that matter) within the first 3 steps of the walk.

The Church, is the guide, and I, well, I was walking blind for a mighty long time. The responsorial to the Psalms in today’s readings sums up my both my experience with the Church and my desires quite nicely,

Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.


To Listen to Stephen Foster (Music for Monday)

-Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

I’ve written about Pandora Radio before. Through Pandora, an internet service that allows you to create your own radio stations, I learned about Olabelle, now one of my All-Time Favorite Groups.

So, I was listening to an Ollabelle-heavy station on Pandora a few weeks back when I heard the unmistakable sound of Ollabelle singing a song I had never heard, “Gentle Annie,” by Stephen Foster (left). That set me on a hard search for the Ollabelle album containing that song. And there is no such thing.

It turns out that a 2005 Grammy was won by an absolutely gorgeous album of Stephen Foster music titled “Beautiful Dreamer” and put together by an enterprising group called American Roots Publishing. It offers arrangements of Foster songs by a host of contemporary artists, from Ollabelle to Roger McGuinn, formerly “Jim” McGuinn of my Truly-All-Time Favorite Group, the Byrds. You can order the Foster collection here, and I recommend that you do so.

I couldn’t find many cuts from this album on YouTube, but I thought I would share a few Stephen Foster songs anyway. Though no Catholic, Foster (1826–1864) was our first great writer of American songs. And I think you’ll agree that his concerns, though they sound dated to “sophisticated” 21st-century ears, were really our concerns.

While I couldn’t find Ollabelle singing “Gentle Annie,” YouTube has a cut of the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna, singing the tune about a loved one who has died: “Shall I nevermore behold thee?”

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Here’s one cut from the “Beautiful Dreamer” collection that did make it to YouTube, a gorgeous collaboration of singer Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, and other instrumentalists. It’s a lullaby that sings, “Pray that the angels will shield thee from harm”:

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More uptempo, here’s Johnny Cash’s version of another Foster favorite, “Camptown Races,” from the Bell Telephone Hour, videotaped only 51 years ago in 1959:

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And here’s a cut from the album—the American country band BR549 singing “Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai”—with a Krazy video accompaniment!

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Just to show how “contempo” Stephen Foster is, here’s another tune (not from the album) offered by a quartet you may have heard of.

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Finally, here’s my favorite tune from the album, though not sung by Mavis Staples, as on the CD. Here it’s sung by the McGarrigle sisters again with (among others) Kate’s son, Rufus Wainwright. It’s a song Job could have sung, “Hard Times Come Again No More”:

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To Pray for Tyler Clementi and his Alleged Perpetrators

   -Feast of Saint Mother Théodore Guérin

Tyler Clementi’s apparent suicide has become worldwide news. The 18-year-old’s body was found in the Hudson River this week, after he jumped off the George Washington Bridge, which is several miles from his northern New Jersey home. The allegation is his Rutgers roomate had recorded the teenager’s sexual encounter with a young man and transmitted it on the internet.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

My family lives a stone’s throw from the Rutgers campus, where Tyler had begun his studies weeks before. This morning, my parish priest took the unusual step of talking about a topical issue. Generally, he hews closely to the Gospel reading and speaks in general terms about how the words apply to our lives.

I’ve been praying for Tyler, a talented violinist who apparently was struggling with his sexual identity, and for the souls of all children, who are growing up at a time when the Internet, along with the fraying of social structures, have eliminated line between public and private realms. I’ve been praying for his parents, his family and all who loved him. What my pastor said this morning resonated with what I have been praying about all week. And so my ideas are inspired by his.

When God commands us: “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” He isn’t just talking about the taking of a human life through murder. We humans are capable every day of inflicting another kind of death : the death of a person’s soul through creating scandal and by holding others up to ridicule. Idle talk and vicious actions can kill a person’s spirit. The alleged perpetrators did not push this young man off the bridge. Whoever violated Tyler’s privacy in his dorm room, whoever stood by watching and laughing, stole his dignity and his personhood.

Today’s Gospel reading lets us know the Catholic vision of faith: It is both something God offers us and something we humans, through our own free will, accept. I pray we all increase our faith and live it out through loving our neighbors as ourselves. Our journeys need to last all our days, acted out in the encounters with every soul God places in our paths.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'” S

For All the Saints: Thérèse of Lisieux

I have been wrestling with the angel named Vocation. In August, my wife and I sold our small publishing business, and just this week I completed all but the proofreading for the biggest writing project I’ve ever tackled. Meanwhile, Katie and both of our daughters are on the first steppingstones of new life paths. For our entire family, the future is an open book. The only thing I know is, I have to work.

Yes, sadly the publishing business did not (never did) reap much of a profit. Selling it was not a lucrative deal. So I will have to continue tending the bread ovens, mixing the dough, stoking the hardwood fires. The only thing that has become clear, or seems to have, is that I will work not as a literal baker, but as a writer.

You might think that, as someone halfway to age 118, I should have solved the vocation question for myself long ago. But my favorite nonfiction writer, Norman Maclean, saw it differently in the epigraph to his book Young Men and Fire, and so do I.

As I get considerably beyond the biblical allotment of three score years and ten, Maclean wrote, I feel with increasing intensity that I can express my gratitude for still being around on the oxygen-side of the earth’s crust only by not standing pat on what I have hitherto known and loved. While the oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if compassion is a form of love.

Not standing pat. New things to love. Compassion is a form of love. Maclean (left) also 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.

Fortunately, several enticing and/or well-paying projects loom ahead of me like islands in the fog. Today, I am going to a meeting about the most enticing of these options, so far anyway. Last week, looking ahead to my meeting today, I thought, “October 1. Let’s see whose day that is,” as in which saint. My heart grew instantly warmer inside my chest when I flipped the page on my Catholic desk calendar and saw that it is Thérèse’s day. Something about it seemed so right, so apropos. I felt safe, provided for. I immediately began saying a novena to Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

Stumbling back into this blog last night, like not just the Prodigal Son but the Prodigal Father, I find that Frank has beat me to the St. Thérèse punch, and if there were ever a lousy, mixed metaphor, that has to be it. But then in the short century-plus since she left this earth and began showering us with flowers, people have never tired of writing about her, a Doctor of the Church with one slim book to her credit.

What struck me this morning and prompted this post was the selection from that slim book, her Story of a Soul, in today’s office of readings. Thérese wrestled with Vocation as well! Of course, she called this process a “longing for martyrdom,” which are words that have not yet fallen from my lips and aren’t likely to this side of the barroom door:

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of Saint Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the first epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will now show you the way which surpasses all the others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind. . . .

I have not yet found peace of mind. But I have a new prayer to steady my mind, a prayer to the Little Flower.

Thanks to “Parker’s Back” (I’m Back)

Today I had to laugh. A reader e-mailed to ask if I was dead. No, I am not dead. That e-mail was the match that lit this post, but Flannery O’Connor was the fuel. Her short story “Parker’s Back,” since I read it over the weekend, like an icon lit by freaky candles, has haunted me. It explains why “Why I Am Catholic” can never be answered satisfactorily. And “Why I Can’t Escape Being Catholic” is an even more compelling question.

Short capsule bio: Flannery O’Connor (above), Southern Catholic woman writer, lived with her mother on a dairy farm, raised peahens, wrote two novels, a passel of short stories, a few essays, many lovely letters, died of lupus at 39.

Synopsis: O. E. Parker, a marginal, all-but-no-good cracker like many O’Connor characters, has a body covered with tattoos, everywhere but his back; falls for a woman whose appeal is inexplicable, she being skinny, cantankerous, unlike the soft, round, pliant, numerous women he has known before. Funniest passage in the whole story illustrates her mysterious appeal:

As he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her. (Paragraph break) They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous. 

Have you ever fallen in love with someone this way? Is this not how all of us (at least us converts) fall in love with the Church? She is unlike any woman we’ve known, and for all that, magnetic and forceful as the daylights.

Synopsis resumed: Once married, Parker becomes gloomy, Sarah Ruth becomes pregnant. One day, Parker crashes his tractor into a tree which goes up in flames like a great burning cross, he goes straight to the tattoo parlor, asks for “the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” won’t settle for anything less than Jesus. As he flips through the book, this image seems to speak to him:

. . . the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture. 

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said.

It’ll cost you nothing less than everything. Synopsis concluded: Parker goes crawling back to Sarah Ruth (great Old Testament name, no?) and to gain entry to their home, he must whisper his real name through the keyhole: Obadiah Elihue. She takes one look at the Christ on his back and growls, “Another picture. I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

But it’s God! Parker moans. God! “No,” she says, “God don’t look like that. He don’t look. He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She drives him out of the house, screaming that he is an idolator and beating him over the back with her broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”

Our last glimpse of Parker, and Sarah Ruth’s, finds him leaning against the one tree in their yard (another tree!). He is “crying like a baby.”

I don’t know why this story haunts me so. In the past four days, I have read it three times, started reading it aloud to Katie, told two good friends about it . . . Is it that, for the Catholic, Christ can become much more than a “spirit,” a wondrous figure from history who did nice things and taught us to be nice? Is it that, by the time faith begins whacking you with its broom and raising welts, Christ is real, not real like an idol, real like a person, present, here, now. One that follows you everywhere, standing behind you, adding His gaze to yours, a gaze so powerful it dries your throat and has the power to burn right through you?

There’s much left to ponder here—while waiting for my death, rumors of which have been exaggerated.

YIMC Book Club Selection Poll

It’s time for another horse race folks. The four selections in the poll (see left side-bar) are all novels written by Catholics that I would like to read over the next twelve months. So,  I’ve put them together and I would like for you to help me choose in what order we will read them. One book per quarter, or at least that is my intention.

Head on over to Amazon and run a query on these selections and then put your vote in the ballot box. The selection with the most votes will be our next read, and we will read the runner-up second, and so on down the line.

We will start reading the winning selection on or around the 3rd week of October. Thanks for your support!

A Poem And A Prayer on Michaelmas

Today is the Feast of St. Michael and the Archangels, also known as Michaelmas. I like the calendar name Michaelmas and that this day used to be a huge festival marking the beginning of Autumn. I actually hope that this day is celebrated extravagantly still somewhere on the globe. Does anyone know?

What follows is a brief hymn penned by Blessed John Henry Newman to mark the occasion. Written in 1862, this was published in 1867 in a volume entitled Verses on Various Occasions.  

Saint Michael
(A hymn)
Thou champion high
Of Heaven’s imperial Bride,
For ever waiting on her eye,
Before her onward path, and at her side,
In war her guard secure, by night her ready guide!
To thee was given,
When those false angels rose
Against the Majesty of Heaven,
To hurl them down the steep, and on them close
The prison where they roam in hopeless unrepose.
Thee, Michael, thee,
When sight and breathing fail,
The disembodied soul shall see;
The pardon’d soul with solemn joy shall hail,
When holiest rites are spent, and tears no more avail.
And thou, at last,
When Time itself must die,
Shalt sound that dread and piercing blast,
To wake the dead, and rend the vaulted sky,
And summon all to meet the Omniscient Judge on high.

Cardinal Newman wielded a mighty pen, as this volume of poems is almost 400 pages in length. I look forward to sharing more of Blessed John Henry’s poetry with you as we make our way through the liturgical calendar.

Now, this feast day would not be complete without a prayer asking St. Michael the Archangel to pray for us and for the Church. Happily, I also found this excellent video presentation of Pope Leo XIII’s original prayer to St. Michael. Composed sometime between 1884 -1898 (I couldn’t find the definitive date), the original prayer is both longer and more soul satisfying than the short version that I am used to seeing.

Pray it along with me now (and please share it with others).

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And how about some recipes for dishes traditionally served on this feast day, courtesy of the good folks at Fish Eaters? Now this is the kind of eating, praying, and loving I can get used too. May I have seconds on the goose please?

Four for the Day (Music for Mondays)

It’s raining, it’s Monday, and Summer is officially over. That about sums it up for me. The weekend was too short, it’s starting to get chilly, and it would have been nice to sleep in on this rainy morning. I hope it’s sunny where you are!

Now matter what the weather is like, try to make the best of it. Here’s what I have on tap for you,

Rainy Days and Mondays. The Carpenters

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Monday, Monday. The Mama’s and the Poppa’s

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Blue Monday. New Order. Don’t you dare dance! Okay, maybe you can tap your feet.

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Manic Monday. The Bangles

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For Dom Lou’s Thoughts on The Effects of Secularization in China

I just finished reading Lou Tseng-Tsiang’s Ways of Confucius and of Christ. In the latter pages of the book, he gives a seminar in Chinese history that I think you may find of interest. Secularization of a culture, the scrubbing away of their religious heritage, is not some new idea. [Read more…]

Because I Was a Stow-Away

Noah built an ark, and Christ built His Church. Hope floats.

For a long time, I was a stow-away aboard His Majesty’s ships. But a few years back, I stopped lurking in the shadows, approached the Captain of one of His frigates, and asked to be added to the rolls of His Majesty’s Fleet.

“All are welcome,” the Captain said. “Of course, you must swear allegiance to Our King and endeavor to follow His dictates and precepts,  which will change you from stem to stern. And, of course, you will be required to work in some capacity aboard the ship. Are you up for this laddie?”

“That is why I am here, sir,” I said with a faltering voice. “I have been a stow-away aboard His Majesty’s ships for years, stealing table scraps, and hiding in the bilge,” I confessed. “I came aboard your particular ship several years ago, and I have been hidden from your attention by one of the crew.”

He laughed heartily, and slapped me on the back and said, “My good fellow, I’ve known about you all along. You thought you escaped my attention, did you? Why, the entire Fleet knows about you, and all of your mates as well. His Majesty knows each one of those who comprise His ship’s company too, be they on the muster rolls, or not.”

I was amazed at this revelation. Stunned.

“Why, a few days before your arrival here,” he continued, “I received a dispatch from the Captain of the last ship you were a stow-away on. The Packet is quite fast, you see, and flies before the wind, unlike that slug of a brig that brought you to the port where you met up with us.”

“You mean you knew I have been on board your ship, sir?,” I stammered. I was amazed that I had not been successful in remaining hidden.

“Of course, and don’t trouble yourself about it. Now that you are going to be added to the rolls, though, I expect a full days work out of you each and every day. Our Majesty expects everyone to do their duty to the utmost of their ability. Is that understood?”

I knuckled my forehead and said in my most seamanlike voice, “Yes sir!”

“Very good, and welcome aboard Seaman Apprentice Weathers. You have much to learn, and much to do, so get on with it.”

And I have been endeavoring to do just that ever since.