To Keep My Mind Open, My Heart Too

There are Catholics and there are Catholics. I don’t mean conservatives and liberals, or Dominicans and Jesuits. I’m talking about Catholics who remain open to experience, because in that experience they may find beauty, they may even find Christ—and Catholics who are closed to experience, because they’re right enough as they are, thank you very much. I had a vivid demonstration of the difference yesterday, when our men’s group welcomed four members of Communion and Liberation (CL) from Boston and Cambridge.

They are four remarkable young Catholics: a doctor from the Massachusetts General Hospital; a Harvard Ph.D candidate and composer of music; his wife, a concert pianist; and a Ph.D candidate in philosophy from Boston College. Three are natives of Italy, one of Paraguay (though he moved to Kansas as a young child). Bright, articulate, and passionate about life—they are typical of the people I have met in CL. They are the kind of people you look at and think, I want to have that kind of passion for life!

What different responses they evoked from the 35 parishioners who came to hear them speak!

I won’t even talk about J. and M., who seemed so fascinated by what was said that they stayed after to learn more. Perhaps one or both will begin to take part in “The Movement.” Instead, I want to boast about my dear friend Carrie. (Yes, women were invited to this special session of our men’s group, a first. Next week the doors slam shut again! LOL) Carrie is in her mid-70s and does not exactly fit the CL demographic, where the average age is probably half hers, if that. Carrie is the sort of elder lady seen at daily Mass of whom an outsider might think, “What else can she do? She’s gone to Mass all her life, and she doesn’t know any other way. The poor dear probably doesn’t even think about it anymore.”

How wrong that outsider would be! After the hour-long discussion of CL, Carrie called me over. She had taken meticulous notes and there were a couple of points she wanted to clarify. She so desired to understand the particular charism of CL, that she asked me a couple of searching questions. When I had answered to her satisfaction, she twinkled a smile at me and said, “Thank you, I just wanted to understand. Thank you. God bless you. God bless you.” I was very touched.

Later in the day, I happened to be out walking when I ran into a friend whom I will call T. He is a good man, good husband, good father. T. was walking the dog with his wife, F. We stopped to talk and the first words out of T.’s mouth were, “I gotta tell you. I have no idea what that CL is about.” T. had sat through the same hour that Carrie and I had witnessed. He had all the same information, though not the same experience. When I rejoindered, “You could probably learn more from the CL web site. You know, there’s a great CL web site,” T. said, “I’m sure there is.” It was obvious that T. had no intention of checking out the CL web site.

I pondered this experience as I continued my walk home and later over dinner with Katie. T. is an admirable man and a devout, well-read Catholic. But it seemed to me that there was something a bit too certain about his point of view, almost as if he viewed the world from behind battlements: “I am a Catholic, I will defend Catholicism to the death, and I will not let pass anything that even smells of the unknown.”

There is a difference between the unknown and the unorthodox. If one took the time to study CL, one would discover that the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation was approved as a valid ecclesial movement within the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1982. (Founder Luigi Giussani began teaching in 1954. The photograph shows him with early students.) One would discover that the homilist at Don Giussani’s funeral was none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, our present Pope. One might even discover that our present Pope meets in weekly School of Community (the term for a CL meeting) with consecrated women of CL who manage the papal household.

But T. will probably never open his mind and heart far enough to appreciate the consequences of these facts, even if he is confronted with them. Which is why I saw little point in arguing with him, and when another dog came by to play with his dog, I used this opportunity to break off our brief conversation and wish T. and F. a pleasant evening.

The truly remarkable person in all this was my dear friend Ferde, because in Ferde I can see the tension between openness to experience and a limiting sense of rightness. To hear him speak sometimes, to exchange e-mails with him, you would think that Ferde must fall into the closed-minded camp. Ferde’s e-mail signature reads, “If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.” That doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt. Ferde is definitely in the “Catholic right or wrong” camp, but you see, that’s something else entirely. That’s upholding orthodoxy. An actor, a writer, and something of a free spirit for all his gruff righteousness, Ferde is orthodox and open.

Given that there are Catholics and there are Catholics, “Catholic right or wrong” necessarily has an expanded definition. Within the Catholic experience, within a full following of the Church and its doctrine, it is possible to be open- and closed-minded. Ferde’s mind is open, which is all the more remarkable because his eardrums are as good as closed.

I’m not telling any tales out of school here to write that Ferde has a congenital hearing deficit. So to sit for an hour listening to accented English, with his hearing aids turned up full, in a space with bad acoustics required an extraordinary effort. (Our upper church has the acoustics of an ear trumpet; our lower church is hushed like the catacombs.) Ferde made a concerted effort to understand, as difficult as that effort may have been for him, and when the hour was over, he was one of the few who asked a searching question of our four guests. As righteous as he may sound at times, Ferde’s desire for the truth is very much intact. This moved me. This impressed me. This showed me once again why Ferde has been such an important friend to me in the Church.

I thank my friends from The Movement for bringing this and many other insights to friends of mine in my home parish.

For All That is Seen and Unseen

I adore swimming in the ocean but I’m not fond of the beaches I must traverse to do so. I don’t like walking over the sand. And when I finish swimming, I don’t like the feeling of wet sand on my toes and legs. So maybe that’s why during a family vacation I hurried along the rocks and pebbles on Sunset Beach, New Jersey, to return to the family van. Thank God that Lucky, our then nine-year-old son, stopped me because he wanted to beach comb.

Something about this weekend’s crystalline sky evoked a memory of the vacation we took this time last year to Cape May County, New Jersey. As a child I spent my beach time in the northern reaches of that county in Stone Harbor and Avalon. With my own family last year we explored Cape May at the county’s southern end. We pretty much stumbled onto Sunset Beach after climbing to the top of both the Cape May Lighthouse and Fire Tower No. 23, a World War II lookout tower that once was part of the harbor defense of the Delaware Bay. We went to the beach to visit the submerged remains of  S.S. Atlantus, the most famous of twelve concrete boats the United States built during World War I. It sits submerged in the Delaware Bay off Sunset Beach. “It did not prove practical,” the historic sign on the beach says of the concrete ship.

Lucky wanted to linger. He was fascinated by the variety of translucent pebbles strewn across the beach in all shapes and colors, pebbles I scarcely had noticed. And so we squatted together in the sand, digging out and collecting black, white, and clear pebbles. It felt as if time had stopped just for us. He was so awed by the pebbles I was moved to talk to him about how God had designed and knew each one of them, the same way He had designed every person who ever had lived. I told my son how God loves all souls, in all our shapes, colors and sizes. We carried the pebbles back to the van and put them in a Mason jar found on the floor of the back seat. 
Only later did I discover that these pebbles are pure quartz and known as Cape May Diamonds. “The Kechemeche Indians were the first to find the fascinating and beautiful stones now known as Cape May Diamonds. The Indians came to believe that these curious stones possessed supernatural power bringing success and good fortune.” The strong bay currents against  the S.S. Atlantus throw thousands of these pebbles onto Sunset Beach. The pebbles’ origins lie thousands of years ago and 200 miles away in the upper reaches of the Delaware River.

That gift of  time suspended in time under a crystalline sky with my son makes me think of these opening lines from William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a world in a grain of sand, 
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

For All the Saints: Joseph the Worker

Writing is not physically demanding, but try doing it every day for three or four hours. The first thing you have to accomplish is to put your body in the chair. (There are other saltier words for body.) Then you have to move your fingers, despite interference from your brain. One of my remedies for this laziness (which some glorify as “writer’s block”) is to read a prayer to St. Joseph each morning before I begin. It hangs over my writing desk.

The beautiful thing about the saints is, they are so connected to the practicalities of daily life. Lose something? Pray to St. Anthony. Have a particularly thorny problem? Think it’s hopeless? Call on St. Jude. Can’t write? Ring up St. Joseph the Worker, whose feast we celebrate today.

Many things link me to St. Joseph, beginning with my own father (long story). Two Catholic links are St. Teresa of Avila, who had a particular devotion to him; and Dorothy Day, who distributed the first edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper on May 1, 1933, just as the Communists were making their greatest inroads among a depressed working class in America. She intended to show workers that the Catholic Church has a program for them as well. Pope Pius XII followed suit by making this a feast day, beginning in 1955.

Here is the prayer to St. Joseph. I hope you find it as helpful as I do in getting over writer’s block or garden-variety laziness:

O glorious St. Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace:
To work in a spirit of penance, for the expiation of my many sins;
To work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my inclinations;
To work with gratitude and joy, considering it an honour to employ and develop by means of labour, the gifts received from God;
To work with order, peace, moderation, and patience, never shrinking from weariness and trials;
To work, above all, with purity of intention, and with detachment from self, having ever before my eyes the hour of death and the account I must give of time poorly spent, talents unused, good omitted, and vain complacency in success.
All for Jesus, all through Mary; all after thy example, O Patriarch Joseph; such shall be my watchword in life and in death. Amen.

Because the Vocation You Pray For May Be Your Own

A few days ago, I wrote a post where I said that as a father and husband, I can’t literally go “to the Desert.” I quipped “maybe in the future.” Sure you will, I thought to myself. And then I found this story of a saint who did just that. Her name is Marie of the Incarnation and her Feast Day is April 18th.

Allison wrote a post on the same day about praying for vocations. Keep this in mind as you pray, because it just might turn out that the prayer may well be answered by an opened door. Who is to say what lies ahead for us? God knows. Barbara Avrillot was a mother of six, but her babies grew up and her husband passed away, opening the door to a life she had always admired. Let’s take a look.

What follows in italics is from the citation on Marie found in the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent.

Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation

Known also as Madame Acarie, foundress of the French Carmel, born in Paris, 1 February, 1566; died at Pontoise, April, 1618. By her family, Barbara Avrillot belonged to the higher bourgeois society in Paris. Her father, Nicholas Avrillot was accountant general in the Chamber of Paris, and chancellor of Marguerite of Navarre, first wife of Henri IV; while her mother, Marie Lhuillier was a descendant of Etienne Marcel, the famous prévôt des marchands (chief municipal magistrate). She was placed with the Poor Clares of Longchamp for her education, and acquired there a vocation for the cloister, which subsequent life in the world did not alter. In 1684, through obedience she married Pierre Acarie, a wealthy young man of high standing, who was a fervent Christian, to whom she bore six children. She was an exemplary wife and mother.

So she came from the upper crust of society and basically went to a boarding school (of sorts) with the Poor Clares. Sounds like something I’ve read before in a novel by Sigred Undstet. She married well and then had six children, which will definitely keep any mom busy for a while. Any dad too. Speaking of dads, he had his hands full at work. Take a look.

Pierre Acarie was one of the staunchest members of the League, which, after the death of Henry III, opposed the succession of the Huguenot prince, Henry of Navarre, to the French throne. He was one of the sixteen who organized the resistance in Paris.

Tea party anyone? Being a rich and well placed gentleman, I daresay he thought he could change the world, and obviously win. This story is getting good. Stand-by for an act of God.

The cruel famine (!), which accompanied the siege of Paris (war!), gave Madame Acarie an occasion of displaying her charity. After the dissolution of the League, brought about by the abjuration of Henry IV, Acarie was exiled from Paris and his wife had to remain behind to contend with creditors and business men for her children’s fortune, which had been compromised by her husband’s want of foresight and prudence.

Ouch. Dad wound up on the wrong side in this fight and was sent away (in irons?!). The family fortune is compromised too? Uh-oh, now mom has to fight to save the estate and provide for her kids as well. I hope she is up to the challenge. Surely, it can’t get any worse than this.

In addition she was afflicted with physical sufferings, the consequences of a fall from her horse, and a very severe course of treatment left her an invalid for the rest of her life.

What the heck? And I thought Kristen Lavransdatter had it tough. But truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it? And, ahem, “severe course of treatment” most likely means a broken leg didn’t heal well. Game over? Not with her network, nor with her example of charity and good works.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Madame Acarie was widely known for her virtue, her supernatural gifts, and especially her charity towards the poor and the sick in the hospitals. To her residence came all the distinguished and devout people of the day in Paris, among them Mme de Meignelay, née de Gondi, a model of Christian widows, Mme Jourdain and Mme de Bréauté, future Carmelites, the Chancellor de Merillac, Père Coton the Jesuit, St. Vincent of Paul, and St. Francis de Sales, who for six months was Mme Acarie’s director.

Yeah, you read that right, St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul were in her Rolodex and paid calls to her salon. Sheeeeesh. Wait a second. I thought the rich had as much chance of getting to heaven as a camel has to pass through the eye of a needle. What gives? I told you this was a great story. It gets better:

The pious woman had been living thus retired from the world, but sought by chosen souls, when, toward the end of 1601, there appeared a French translation of Ribera’s life of St. Teresa. The translator, Abbé de Brétigny, was known to her. She had some portions of the work read to her.

Another rich illiterate? Doubtful, because she went to school with the Poor Clares, remember? Maybe either Vincent or Francis was reading to her in the salon on a visit. Ready for a miracle? Read on—

A few days later St. Teresa, appeared to her and informed her that God wished to make use of her to found Carmelite convents in France. The apparitions continuing, Mme Acarie took counsel and began the work.

I mean, what the heck would you do? Keep shopping and go on cruises? Talk about your life-changing experiences! As Our Lord says, “knock and the door will be opened to you.” Sure, the French hated the Spanish, but when Our Lord sends Big Terry as an emissary in a vision, well, I’d obey the call too, no questions asked. But what about the wealth?

Mlle de Longueville, wishing to defray the cost of erecting the first monastery, in Rue St. Jacques, Henry IV granted letters patent, 18 July, 1602. A meeting in which Pierre de Bérulle, future founder of the Oratory, St. Francis of Sales, Abbé de Brétigny, and the Marillacs took part, decided on the foundation of the “Reformed Carmel in France,” 27 July, 1602. The Bishop of Geneva (Francis de Sales again) wrote to the pope to obtain the authorization, and Clement VIII granted the Bull of institution, 23 November, 1603.

That answers the wealth question. Put it to work for the Lord! Speaking of Clement, way back around 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote a lengthy exposition entitled Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? Basically it spells it out for us regular folks that when wealth is put in its proper place (read “way out in left field”), while Christ remains in the proper place (read “at the center of our being”), things work out just dandy. Especially when you give all your wealth away, as Marie eventually does. But not yet, I don’t think her husband would agree. Anyway. . .

The following year some Spanish Carmelites were received into the Carmel of Rue St. Jacques, which became celebrated. Mme de Longueville, Anne de Gonzague, Mlle de la Vallieres, withdrew to it; there also Bossuet and Fénelon were to preach. The Carmel spread rapidly and profoundly influenced French society of the day. In 1618, the year of Mme Acarie’s death, it numbered fourteen houses.

From zero to fourteen Carmelite houses in France due to the work of this fine soldier for Christ. Can she rest now? Go back on vacation? Why would she want to when there is still so much for this crippled mom to accomplish. Like to help fund, er, found the French Oratory and then the Ursulines.

Mme. Acarie also shared in two foundations of the day, that of the Oratory and that of the Ursulines. She urged De Bérulle to refuse the tutorship of Louis XIII, and on 11 November, 1611 she, with St. Vincent de Paul, assisted at the Mass of the installation of the Oratory of France. Among the many postulants whom Mme Acarie received for the Carmel, there were some who had no vocation, and she conceived the idea of getting them to undertake the education of young girls, and broached her plan to her holy cousin, Mme. de Sainte-Beuve.

The Ursalines were founded solely for the purpose of educating young girls. How progressive. Those wacky Catholics, always pushing the frontier of humanism and never getting credit for it. I’d like to get to know her “holy cousin” too. Marie was still married all this time but alas,

To establish the new order they brought Ursulines to Paris and adopted their rule and name. M. Acarie having died in 1613, his widow settled her affairs and begged leave to enter the Carmel, asking as a favour to be received as a lay sister in the poorest community.

OK, all the children raised? Check. No longer married? Check. Remember her life long dream of a “vocation to the cloister”? Check. Exit stage left!

In 1614 she withdrew to the monastery of Amiens, taking the name of Marie de l’Incarnation. Her three daughters had preceded her into the cloister, and one of them was sub-prioress at Amiens. In 1616, by order of her superiors, she went to the Carmelite convent at Pontoise, where she died. Her cause was introduced at Rome in 1627; she was beatified, 24 April, 1791; her feast is celebrated in Paris on 18 April.

Ever heard the expression “God writes straight with crooked lines”? What a life and what a marvelous ending! Maiden, wife, mother, wealthy patron of the Church, cloistered Carmelite, and then home with our Lord. May all our journeys end blessed as such.

Madame Acarie, please pray for vocations and also please pray for us.

You can read a full account of her life on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf in A Gracious Life by Emily Bowles.

Because of First Communions

 Over the course of three Saturday mornings this spring, nearly 250 second graders at Saint Patrick’s Parish in Yorktown Heights, NY, will be making their First Communion. A niece of mine is one of these blessed children and I was privileged to witness this special moment in her spiritual life. We Catholics make a big fuss over First Communions and this one was no exception.  Four priests celebrated the Mass and hundreds of family members and friends crowded the sanctuary. Wedged among my own extended family, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit move through the church and through me during the Mass.

First, a confession: I am partial to traditional church architecture. I like my churches shaped like a cross, with one center aisle. I like them vertical so that our prayers can rise to the heavens. Instead, St. Patrick’s is a barn-like church-in-the-round built in 1984. When I entered the church, I felt distracted. Irritated. I also was tired from my two-hour drive to get there. So I prayed that God would enable me to keep my focus where it belonged: on this First Communion Mass.

Virtually the only natural light coming into the sanctuary was from a long skylight extending from the back of the church to the altar. Because it was midmorning, the sun was bright and shining directly and exclusively onto the center aisle as the children processed in. The girls were decked out in white veils and poofy white dresses, the boys in dark suits with white boutonnières. The sunlight felt to me like the Holy Spirit, lighting the path of their lives.

During his homily, the pastor, Rev. Joseph F. Bisignano, addressed first the children and then their parents. He began by asking the children how many of them believed, without a doubt, that Jesus loves them. All the children but one raised their hands. Fr. Bisignano walked over to the young girl, leaned down and looked her in the eye. “I want you to know, without a doubt, that Jesus loves you,” he told her. He went on to talk to the children about their First Penance and about transubstantiation—the process by which the wheat and wine become Jesus’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. He talked about how Jesus becomes part of each of us every time we take Communion. He explained that this happens not because he and other priests are perfect men, but because they are ordained priests. 

Turning his remarks to the parents, Fr. Bisignano made some pointed remarks in the kindest of voices. He reminded them that this First Communion was a result of the solemn promises they had made when they baptized their children in the Catholic faith. He explained that this commitment extended long after the special First Communion day was over. Parents, he said, have promised God that they will take their children to church until the children are old enough to take themselves. “I implore you,” he said. “Don’t let this be their last communion.” 

As the mass progressed, the shaft of sunlight danced around the ceiling and walls of the church. By the end of Mass, it had settled on the first communicants themselves, bathing them in light while the rest of the congregation was in shadow. St. Basil the Great, a Doctor of the Church, tells us: “The Spirit is the source of holiness, a spiritual light, and he offers his own light to every mind to help it in its search for truth. By nature the Spirit is beyond the reach of our mind, but we know him by his goodness. The power of the Spirit fills the whole universe, but he gives himself only to those who are worthy, acting in each according to the measure of his faith.”

I love First Communion Masses. They remind me that faith is simple. Jesus loves us. He loves us so much that he gave His life for us. Every time we go to Mass and take Communion, we are letting Jesus enter us and feed us spiritually. We need to be ready to receive Him by striving always to be better people and by confessing our sins. In “Bless My Child,” her Catholic mother’s prayer book, writer Julie Cragon tells us that St. Tarcisius died carrying the Blessed Sacrament to prisoners: Dear St. Tarcisius, Be here with all these children on this special day. Pray with them that they might always hold fast to their beliefs and that the Eucharist may give them the grace they need to join Christ’s banquet in heaven. Amen.

Driving back to New Jersey after the Mass and reception, I asked our 10-year-old son what he remembers about his own First Communion three years ago (left). He shook his head and said he didn’t remember it at all. “But I remember the after-party,” he said.

This remark made me smile for a couple of reasons. First, it told me he understood that his mom and dad had made a big deal of the day. He remembered the two ten-pound pizzas we bought at his request for his party. Second and more important was his reference to the party at our home as the “after-party.” This tells me he understands that the real party happened earlier, at the blessed banquet in which he participated for the first time. God bless every child who experiences a foretaste of heaven for the first time this Easter season.

To See the Face of Christ

As our sons enter their teenage years, the challenge of imbuing them with Catholic Christian values is becoming more difficult. How do I live in the world as a Christian when my tendency as a Christian is to protect my sons by running and hiding with them? I just got off the phone with one of my dearest friends. As usual, talking with Martha illuminated me. Today’s hour-long chat included mention of a tattooed, pierced truck driver. Not the one at left, but someone like him.

Martha lives about an hour from us and is busy raising four daughters with her husband. So we don’t talk or see one another as much as either of us would like. We joke that during our occasional marathon phone calls, however, we “solve world problems.” We nearly always talk about how we are trying to live out our faith and raise children to follow Christ in a world that seems increasingly indifferent to spirituality.

Martha and her husband, devout Christians, had considered homeschooling their daughters. Instead, they enrolled them in public schools, believing the girls could be a light of faith for other children. Lately, she’s been struggling with the same issues I am: how to maintain and communicate our values to our children, while not condemning or avoiding others who don’t share our beliefs. Our faith teaches us, after all, that every human being was called into existence and is deeply loved by God. Everyone we encounter is redeemable. Each of us is part of the face of Christ in this world. This is how she began to talk about the truck driver.

Martha told me about how she recently had stopped at a red light with her daughters. Her third grader looked over at the truck stopped next to them. The driver had lots of tattoos on his arms and multiple piercings on his face and ears. The daughter sneered at the sight of him,  turned to her mother and said “Why would someone look  like that?” Martha took a deep breath. “You know what? He’s the kind of guy Christ would want to hang out with.” “Really?” the daughter asked.  “Absolutely,” Martha told her.

During the time of Christ there lived a group of Jews called the Pharisees. Their name comes from the Hebrew word parush, meaning “set apart.” They came into existence during the third century B.C. “A growing sense of superiority to the heathen and idolatrous nations among whom their lot was cast came to be one of their main characteristics.” Boy, does this hit close to home.

How easy it is for me feel self-satisfied in my sweet cocoon of family and parish, from which I sometimes look out at others with suspicion or contempt. Christ had a strong name for people like me: hypocrites. If we want to follow the life of Christ, we need to take a look at how Christ lived. He didn’t hang out with pious people. In Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Mark, Christ leaves his home. He argues with other Jewish teachers. He heals a paralyzed man and then shocks people by forgiving his sins. He finds Levi, who is a tax collector, a man doing one of the most sordid jobs for the Roman occupation. (Think of how we view loan sharks.) Christ says to Levi, a married father of four: “Follow me.”  Christ shares a meal with Levi and his disreputable friends. The Pharisees were disgusted to see Christ eating with such a crew. Levi eventually becomes an apostle of Christ. He’s St. Matthew (pictured). See how much he looks like the truck driver?

It’s no coincidence that Christ came into our world during a time when Pharisees were a revered group or that Christ considered them a bunch of hypocrites. And it isn’t some random biographical detail that Christ chose to share meals with people who lacked piety. This all is designed to instruct us how to live our Christian faith: in the world, not just the sanctuary.

Here in the suburbs, I’m not likely to encounter a leper. Who are our modern-day undesirables? The teen rushed to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. The neighbor spotted at nearby bars, cheating on his wife. The parents who prefer cocktail parties to spending time with their children. The former parishioner who mocks the church. The mother who sends her troubled son to a counselor with his nanny instead of accompanying him herself.

We’re called not to condemn. We are called to see, as another friend puts it, “the smashed face of Christ” in those we encounter, including ourselves.

Immediately after Christ gives us the Beatitudes, he gives us marching orders through tough questioning: For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

This isn’t easy. God help us.

“Death Be Not Proud” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I interviewed a devoutly Catholic man yesterday for non-Catholic reasons. He told me that for people like him and me, both nearer 60 than 50, each day boils down to “a choice between Dunkirk and the Alamo.” When you get into a situation, there are two outcomes: You get your boats off the beach and live to fight another day, as at Dunkirk; or you make your last stand, as at the Alamo. Meaning, we’re getting near the end of the line, and now it’s only a question of, How long?

Then he said, “Of course, we Catholics know that there is a final destination, and that makes all the difference,” or words to that effect. (He said all of this with much saltier language. I have never met a Catholic more at home with profanity.)

All of this made me think of the line “Death be not proud,” which I first encountered as the title of a memoir by John Gunther about his son’s early death from, I think it was, a brain tumor. We read the book in 7th grade, or maybe 8th, and it made an impression.

Where does the line come from? My sister Elizabeth, the English scholar in the family, would know, because it comes from her favorite poet, John Donne (pictured). Here is Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10. It’s worth a second reading for any Catholic.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou thinks’t, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

To Pray for Vocations

In 1964, Pope Paul VI launched the World Day of Prayer for Vocations with this prayer: “O Jesus, divine Shepherd of the spirit, you have called the Apostles in order to make them fishermen of men, you still attract to you burning spirits and generous young people, in order to render them your followers and ministers to us.”  Since then, Catholic parishes around the world have been praying for vocations every fourth Sunday of Easter. Despite the prayers of faithful Catholics, the number of religious priests, brothers and sisters has relentlessly declined in the United States. But lately: signs of hope.

On Sunday at St. Peter’s Parish  in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Father Tom Odorizzi, C.O., spoke forcefully during his homily to about 100 Rutgers University students gathered at the 8 p.m. Rutgers Catholic Center Mass. He shared his own story of graduating from college with an electrical engineering degree and every intention of launching a successful career as an engineer. “So it’s possible,” said the pastor, who was ordained in 1992. “You need to have a heart that is open, a heart that is open to the call of the Lord.” 

Less than a decade ago,  Rutgers student Jeffrey Calia sat in those pews. Baptized in the Lutheran faith, but not raised in a church-going family,  he converted to Catholicism during his college years. Now Brother Jeff in the Metuchen Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, he will be ordained over Memorial Day Weekend  at St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Metuchen. After Brother Jeff’s conversion, his mother converted to Catholicism after marrying a Catholic man; and Brother Jeff’s father, a lapsed cradle Catholic, has begun to attend Mass regularly as well. 

Faith is blossoming at colleges across the country, and that is encouraging vocations. At Walsh University, a small Catholic institution in North Canton, Ohio, five students are entering religious life: one young man will be ordained a priest and four women will become Dominican nuns. All of them credit campus chaplain Rev. Christopher M. Saliga, for helping them to follow God’s plan. (I would love to collect more of these success stories. Readers: what are yours? )

While charismatic college chaplains are nurturing vocations, parents play a key role in whether young adults can hear the call to religious life. To ensure the vitality of our Catholic Church in the future, we Catholic parents must embrace the possibility that one of our sons or daughters might have a religious vocation. Without priests, there would be no sacraments and no Church. Pope Benedict XIV, pictured here when he was a child, grew up in a family where pursuing a religious life was not unusual. His brother, Georg, is also a priest, as was a great uncle. In childhood, the Pontiff desired to be a priest. How would we react if one of our sons told us this? Or if a daughter said she wanted to become a nun? As Maria and Joseph Ratzinger Sr. did, we need to embrace those possibilities.

To Learn How to be Merciful

When someone wrongs me, it’s easy to be right. Being merciful, however, is hard and necessary. What it takes for me to be merciful is to try my best to contemplate that person, who for the moment I consider my enemy, from more than my own perspective. I know I never will be able to behold a fellow human being as God does, because He exists beyond the limited dimension of time and offers us immeasurable love. But I can try to recognize more dimensions of my enemy than I already do.

Pablo Picasso and other Cubist painters reconsidered and reassembled their subjects and then depicted them in one painting from multiple viewpoints. The painting above is one of 60 Picasso created of his companion, Fernande Olivier, during the fall and spring of  1909. What would my life look like if I labored with as much care as Picasso painted his Fernande to behold every difficult person I encounter?

We talked about the difference between being right and being merciful at a CL School of Community (meeting) recently, which took place in the dining room of the rectory of St. Peter the Apostle Church in New Brunswick, NJ. I am thankful to the others in the room for speaking from their hearts about the topic, which helped me gain insight into my own spiritual life. As I wage battle with some of my interior faults, including my tendency to believe I’m right, I often make snap judgments about people based on next-to-no information. This is a sin that leads to others, including prideful, angry and self-righteous behaviors. This tendency to be right also denies me the opportunity to practice mercy.

When I am right, I can still nurture my anger. When I am right, I do not have to interact with the person who wronged me. When I am right, I don’t have to do a thing, except feel right. When I try to be merciful, I have to engage myself with that person. This can happen by sharing my sorrow with them over the pain I felt, and by attempting to reconcile with them. But first, always first, practicing mercy has to happen in my prayers.

When someone wrongs me and I feel my sense of indignation start to swell, I try to imagine this enemy rising in the morning. Obviously, I do not know the details of the rising, but I try to conceive it. Where does my enemy sleep? Alone? With a spouse? How does my enemy leave the bed? By putting slippers on? Turning off an alarm clock? Calling out to children? I consider this spiritual exercise a  prayer because it permits me to understand that my enemies are fellow humans being who have their own ways of facing their days. Like everyone of us, they have had to figure out a way to grapple with the solitude of their own destinies. As recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ Himself taught us to have mercy on our enemies: “But if your brother shall offend against you, go, and rebuke him between you and him alone. If he shall hear you, you shall gain your brother.” Later in that sermon, He admonishes us to have limitless forgiveness of our “fellow servants as I have had compassion with you.”

Of course, my way of learning to show mercy by imagining my enemy from multiple perspectives is not a first with me. Graham Greene expressed this sentiment so well in his novel The Power and the Glory. “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Thanks to Arvo Pärt (Music for Monday)

The beautiful thing about Catholic life, if you love it, is that everything streams into it: literature, music, theater and art, politics, science. Everything can remind one of the beauty of creation. Everything can be a sign of Christ’s presence. Even music you know nothing about.

I have written before about the joys of Pandora Radio, a Web service that allows you to build your own customized stations. Like a song? Make it the “seed” of a new station and Pandora will grow you a whole wildflower garden of music with similar qualities.

Thanks to my pal James, I’ve been listening to Stile Antico Radio, which features polyphony, mostly from the Renaissance. But Pandora is sneaky. It will start slipping you stuff that’s from an entirely different era or even planet just because this music has features of that music. Thus I met Arvo Pärt (pictured).

Believe me, I know nothing about the guy except what I read in Wikipedia. But I love the umlaut. And I love the music. So, presto, I asked Pandora to create another station for me, and for the past week, while out walking, I’ve been listening to Arvo Pärt Radio on my iPhone, complete with cool white ear buds.

Here are some selections from Arvo Pärt Radio (how do you pronounce that name?!), with minimal liner notes from the honestly ignorant Mr. Bull.

Arvo Pärt, “Agnus Dei”
Born Estonia 1935. Apparently still living, or was living the last time his Wiki entry was updated. Made up his own style of composition called tintinnabuli but “also finds inspiration from Gregorian chant.” Those in the know say he belongs to the school of “holy minimalism.” I say I like his stuff.

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Eric Whitacre, “Water Night”
Now this guy is young, born 1970, yikes, 19 years younger than me. He shouldn’t even be allowed on this site. But get a load of his music. It’s beautiful.

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Sir John Tavener, “The Lamb”
Born in England in 1944, he claims to be a direct descendant of 16th-century composer John Taverner, but I say, if so, what happened to the second r? Strikes me as a bit of a poseur, but then I hear this setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” and I no longer care.

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If you read music, you’ll especially enjoy this piece by Sir John, “Funeral Ikos.”

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Henryk Gorecki, “Totus Tuus”
Again, it was James who tipped me off to Gorecki, and I’ll close with this piece. Born in Southwest Poland in 1933, he wrote it in 1987 in honor of Pope John Paul II and one of his return trips to Poland. “Totus Tuus” was JPII’s apostolic motto, “All Yours,” an expression of his devotion to Mary. Do you have any favorite pieces by any of these modern masters?

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