Because I Am Usually Howling with the Mob

During these terrible days, when so many are saying so much so loudly against and in favor of our Church, and especially its leader, our dear Pope Benedict XVI, it is hard to stand apart from the mob—the one howling in protest, or the one trying desperately to shout them down. We are all standing along the Way of the Cross, jeering the scourged Christ or bewailing his persecution. How can we possibly be different? How can we change?

This is the question we have been addressing for the past two weeks in our School of Community (local membership of Communion and Liberation): Is it possible for me, as a Christian, to be fundamentally changed by my religious experience? Or is Christianity just something “added onto” me, like a picture in my wallet, or the leavings of a course I took in school years ago?

Can my experience of Christ be so convincing that I can resist even the pull of the mob—whether they are welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with palms or goading him angrily up Golgotha? 

In his homily last night, Father Barnes addressed this question. He said memorably that the only thing that can prepare us for the sounds of Good Friday—the curses, the shouts, the lamentations—is the silence in the Upper Room and the three gifts Christ leaves us here. The gifts, he told us, are charity (symbolized by Christ washing his Apostles’ feet), the Eucharist, and the priesthood, which Jesus instituted among the Twelve at the Last Supper, or among the Eleven who stood by him, though even some of them fell asleep.

I sang with the choir at the beautiful seven o’clock mass, and then a few of us stayed behind, seated before the Blessed Sacrament. Finally, at a few minutes before ten, we stood with Father Barnes for Compline, then silently left the church.

I will be thinking more about Christ’s three gifts as Katie and I fly to North Carolina this morning to see our daughter received into the Church. Even tomorrow evening’s Easter Vigil, as beautiful and touching as it will be, begs the question—Does this have the power to change me? Or will I be shouting with the mob again on Monday morning?

Because of the Easter Triduum

The Easter Triduum comprises the holiest days in the Christian calendar. It begins tonight with Holy Thursday, when we commemorate the last meal our Lord ate with his disciples. It ends with Easter Sunday evening prayers as we rejoice in His Resurrection.

Until then, dear reader, let us all pray for one another and for our Church. Let us pray for folks on both sides of the Tiber. Let us pray for those who are joining the Church this season, including Webster’s beloved daughter in North Carolina, and for those who are contemplating conversion. Let us pray for Catholics whose faith is faltering or lost and let us pray for a world which often seems indifferent to the miracle of creation and resurrection. 

Two years ago, in an address in Saint Peter’s Basilica,  Benedict XIV said this about the Triduum, 

Dear brothers and sisters, during these special days let us guide our lives definitively toward a complete and decisive adherence to the designs of our celestial Father; let us renew our “yes” to the divine will as Jesus did with his sacrifice on the cross. The rites suggested for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the rich silence of prayer of Holy Saturday and the solemn Easter vigil provide us with the opportunity to deepen the feelings and the values of our Christian vocation unleashed by the Paschal mystery and to strengthen it by faithfully following Christ in all circumstances, just as he did, even to the point of giving up our own existence to him.

For the Glory of the Lord

Following the Last Supper, and after Judas left to carry out his betrayal, Jesus explained to the remaining apostles the trials they would face in the coming days, and for the rest of their days. Then Our Lord prayed what is now known as The High Priestly Prayer. Here it is in its entirety as recorded by St. John in chapter 17 of his gospel account, prayed by Jesus for the new holy people:

Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; give glory to your Son, that the Son may give glory to you. You have given him power over all mortals, and you want him to bring eternal life to all you have entrusted to him. For this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the One you sent, Jesus Christ.


I have glorified you on earth and finished the work that you gave me to do. Now, Father, give me in your presence the same Glory I had with you before the world began. I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they kept your word. And now they know that all you have given me comes indeed from you. I have given them the teaching I received from you, and they received it and know in truth that I came from you; and they believe that you have sent me.

I pray for them; I do not pray for the world but for those who belong to you and whom you have given to me – indeed all I have is yours and all you have is mine – and now they are my glory. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world whereas I am going to you. Holy Father, keep them in your Name (that you have given me,) so that they may be one, just as we are.

When I was with them, I kept them safe in your Name, and not one was lost except the one who was already lost, and in this the Scripture was fulfilled. But now I am coming to you and I leave these my words in the world that my joy may be complete in them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them because they are not of the world; just as I am not of the world. 

I do not ask you to remove them from the world but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world; consecrate them in the truth – your word is truth. I have sent them into the world as you sent me into the world, and for their sake, I go to the sacrifice by which I am consecrated, so that they too may be consecrated in truth.

I pray not only for these but also for those who through their word will believe in me. May they all be one as you Father are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us; so the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the Glory you have given me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. Thus they shall reach perfection in unity and the world shall know that you have sent me and that I have loved them just as you loved me.

Father, since you have given them to me, I want them to be with me where I am and see the Glory you gave me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world has not known you but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me. As I revealed your Name to them, so will I continue to reveal it, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I also may be in them.”

You can read all of St. John’s account of the Last Supper and the Passion starting in Chapter 13 of his gospel account.

Because Christ is Everywhere—Even in the Shoe Department

I hate shopping at chain stores, I really do. The amount of merchandise and the lack of natural lighting overload my senses. So does the idea I could be doing something infinitely better with my time. But sometimes, I just can’t avoid shopping. Our boys needed new sneakers and Easter slacks and shirts so yesterday we had to head down a traffic-clogged state highway to buy them. But Christ finds a way of making Himself seen—even at Kohl’s.

My husband and I are raising our boys in New Jersey, the most densely populated state and the state with the greatest square footage of retail real estate per resident. I can think of no national retail chain that is not within a 10-minute drive of our home. We live in an oasis of calm amid strip malls and shopping centers; ours is a small town with sycamore-lined streets and a tidy commercial district we walk to for groceries, for church, and for after-dinner ice cream cones. Whenever one of us returns from an errand in town, the others ask: “Who did you see?” because inevitably, we run into friends and neighbors on our travels.

Yesterday, I left this idyll for Kohl’s. I have nothing in particular against the chain. I don’t like shopping at Macy’s or WalMart or Marshalls, either. The older I become, the stronger my faith and the emptier materialism,

a philosophical system which regards matter as the only reality in the world, which undertakes to explain every event in the universe as resulting from the conditions and activity of matter, and which thus denies the existence of God and the soul.

I was especially grumpy yesterday because before we left for shopping our 10-year-old had an unpleasant encounter with a neighborhood boy. The other fifth grader said some unkind things to our son about his older brother. Our 10-year-old returned home, most uncharacteristically, filled with angry tears. Someone had dissed his beloved older brother. Though I tried not to show it, I felt angry too. We don’t allow our sons to say unkind things about other people and we have trained them to pray—or at least try to pray—for their “enemies.”  They would face real consequences if we were to find out they had mouthed off to another kid about their brother or anything else. As we drove to Kohl’s, we were talking about this incident, my 13-year-old saying he truly felt confused by the criticism and why a kid he never has met would need to tear him down to feel good about himself. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “This is really baffling.”

At Kohl’s, after we spent time in the men’s section looking for pants for my teen and the boys’ section to find slacks for the 10-year-old, I felt done. Our cart was flowing with socks and slacks and shirts. We went over to the shoe department. I sat on a bench and let the boys find their own shoes. I silently stewed, my mind filled with angry thoughts. I was thinking about how so many parents I know find excuses for their children’s obnoxious behavior instead of correcting their children. I don’t know the offending boy’s parents, but even if I did and spoke with them, would they even care? What am I supposed to tell my boys? To talk back to someone who is rude? To let it go and recognize some people are just mean? To tell people about their hurt and try to reconcile with them?

I was feeling kind of hopeless about the whole thing. I sat on a bench, my arms dangling on the loaded-up shopping cart under florescent lights while my sons shopped. Do you ever have that feeling of being a stranger to the world, the sense of: what am I doing here?

All of a sudden, above the noise of my thoughts, I became aware that our teen was helping his little brother find the Converse sneakers he wanted. He had left the shoe department to find a clerk and ask for help and he was returning with suggestions on where to find the sneakers. Then, right in front of me, the most beautiful tableau appeared: a little boy, no older than three, was sitting on a bench pretending to try on shoes. His mother came over to him, knelt in front of him, and kissed him tenderly. I pulled out my cell phone to take a picture, but I was too late. The tableau vanished. Then, I looked  to my right and and saw my sons, standing by a shoe kiosk, the older one guiding the little one to find his sneakers. So I took the photo above.

And then I thought: I’ve been getting this all wrong. Christ is not just in the comfortable, familiar places, like my hometown and among my neighbors. He is here, too, amid the roads clogged with traffic, the miles of strip shopping malls and clearance racks. God knows we have to live in a material world. He knows we need to clothe and care for our children. Christ has found a way to show Himself to me, in this present moment, in the shoe department of the East Brunswick Kohl’s.
……

For All the Saints: Benjamin

I wrote once that the saints are hard corps. I used a battlefield story from the Korean War era to make my point about how the saints can motivate us to be better Christians. That is, unless they repel us and shame us with their bravery. Like today’s saint, for example.

It is the feast day of St. Benjamin. He was martyred on this day in the year 424 in a manner that brought renown to a certain Transylvanian nobleman named Vlad. But this killing of a devout Christian, for proclaiming the Gospel, happened in Persia long before Bram Stoker was around to write Dracula.

Benjamin was a deacon too. So although he was pretty involved in the affairs of his parish,  he was still a little guy like you and me. A warrant officer on His Majesty’s Ships muster roll.

Here is some handy background information that I gleaned from the internet.

The Christians in Persia had enjoyed twelve years of peace during the reign of Isdegerd, son of Sapor III, when in 420 it was disturbed by the indiscreet zeal of Abdas, a Christian Bishop who burned the Temple of Fire, the great sanctuary of the Persians.

Zealots…I hate those guys! Which sounds like one of my favorite lines delivered by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Usually hurled at Nazis,other bad guys, etc. As for zealots, it takes one to know one, for as Marines go, I practiced that trade with missionary-like zeal for quite some time.

So this Bishop Abdas got inspired and decided to use the scorched earth policy versus the heathen. Fighting fire with fire. Here is how it worked out.

King Isdegerd threatened to destroy all the churches of the Christians unless the Bishop would rebuild it. As Abdas refused to comply, the threat was executed; the churches were demolished, Abdas himself was put to death, and a general persecution began which lasted forty years.

Notice we aren’t marking the feast of St. Abdas? Well we will be, just not until May 16. That is the day King Isdegerd rounded him and seven others up and had them killed in the year 420. Remember the original 12 disciples? There was a zealot (or two?) among them as well. The Lord loves his zealots, as well as his fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes, the lame,  and even rich guys hiding in the Sanhedrin.

King Isdegerd died in the year 421, but his policies lived on. His son and heir named Varanes assumed the throne with the intentions of remembering his dad’s legacy, not to mention with the intent to placate the institutional anger of his pagan subjects who remembered well that their temples had been destroyed. Actually, King Varanes was going to show his departed dad how he should have handled these pesky Christians.

So here is little Deacon Benjamin, who was sitting in irons for a year, probably since he couldn’t hide from King Varanes and his stool-pidgeons forever. Good news though! An ambassador of the Emperor of Constantinople negotiates Benjamin’s release from jail. But on one condition: Benjamin must never speak of his religion again. You know, to the authorities. Just keep quiet Benjy and all will be well. Maintain a low profile. Live for another day.

Benjamin decides not to play this game. Instead he,

declared it was his duty to preach Christ and that he could not be silent. Although he had been liberated on the agreement made with the ambassador and the Persian authorities, he would not acquiesce in it, and neglected no opportunity of preaching.

Uh-oh. Another zealot. This is going to end badly.

Here is how King Varenes handles Benjamin,

He was again apprehended and brought before the king. The tyrant ordered that reeds should be thrust in between his nails and his flesh and into all the tenderest parts of his body and then withdrawn. After this torture had been repeated several times, a knotted stake was inserted into his bowels to rend and tear him. The martyr expired in the most terrible agony.

Martyrd by Varenes the Impaler.

But Benjamin’s soul lives on. Do you know the origins of the motto of the State of New Hampshire, Live Free or Die?  The complete saying is taken from a toast by General John Stark, retired from the victorious Continental Army, given in 1809. It goes:  Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.

Spoken like another zealot. I think, nay, I know St. Benjamin would agree. For as today’s reading from Isaiah (50:7-8) makes clear,

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.

St. Benjamin, pray for us.

From “Magdalen” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Mary Magdalene. Our two daughters are named Martha and Marian, and I privately hoped that we would have a third daughter, named Madeleine. It didn’t happen. I love this image by Alexander Ivanov (1806–1858). And then I came across this poem, “Magdalen.”

I found it (a fragment really) in a book Frank sent me last week: Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse (Ignatius 2005). The mysterious thing is, I can’t find the rest of the poem on line. But then the author is a mystery too: Dunstan Thompson (1918–1975), a native of New England, who moved to Old England and became a hero of the homosexual underground—until he converted to Catholicism and renounced his old life. He even instructed his literary executor never to republish the poems of his early years.

Thompson’s story is told online by the Gay & Lesbian Review. I am not a regular reader; it’s just that this was the best account of Thompson’s life I could find, in fact the only account. If you look at the story through the other end of the telescope than that used by the writer, you might just see a male version of Mary Magdalene.

Here’s a selection from “Magdalen.” If anyone finds the whole thing on line, please let me know:

High in the noonday sky,
   His arms thrown open wide,
Love is about to die,
   With a thief on either side.

One He has welcomed home,
   The other prefers to hate,
Like the Pharisees, who roam
   In packs and wait and wait.

The soldiers there below,
   Bored and ashamed and blind,
Rattle the dice and throw
   Their lives away like rind.

The mocking scholars toss
   Their beautiful white heads
Far off; but at the Cross
   Who reads?

His mother, calm in pain,
   Adoring, and John,
The youngest friend, remain:
   Fair weather friendships gone.

And one other. She,
   Whose sins have had their share
In blossoming that tree,
   Offers her sorrow there.

Those tears are now for Him,
   Not for herself; she weeps
Outside her life; eyes swim
   Up from their own deeps.

His gift of sacrifice
   Opens her rusted heart:
With Him she pays the price
   Of love, that suffering art.

And so triumphant grief
   Makes her the fourth to stay:
Two innocents, a thief,
   And a whore, together pray.

Because of the Franciscan Knots on My Rosary

This morning I made my first Franciscan knot. I am inordinately proud of this knot of mine. I only was able to make this knot because Marge, who has been making these knots for—pardon the pun—decades, guided my hands with her hands, which are knotted with arthritis. Marge, a daily communicant, retired nurse, and mother of five, offered to teach the teens in our youth group how to make rosaries. Loading plastic beads on a piece of nylon rope is not hard. Knowing how to make the knots between them is key. I learned this morning if you want to make a rosary out of cord, you have to know how to make the knot.

The Franciscan knots separate the Hail Mary beads and everything else on a rosary, whether it’s the Our Father beads or the Crucifix or the Mary medal. Marge let us cheat and use clear plastic spacers everywhere except before the Crucifix and the Virgin Mary medallion.

To make the Franciscan knot, we used a grooved cord tool, through which we threaded the cord to form the knots. We did a triple overhand with the cord, which represents each of the friars’ Gospel vows. Since the middle ages, Franciscan friars have worn three of these knots on their cords. They stand for poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Poor Clares, who are cloistered Franciscan nuns, wear four knots, the fourth symbolizing their vow of enclosure. Third Order of Secular Franciscans wear five knots for the five wounds of Christ.

The  teens spent nearly an hour working on  their practice knots, and then chattered away and ate bagels. But I was determined to make a whole rosary. As I tried and tried to make that knot, I started reflecting on knots. The rosary’s origins are the rope cords knotted by desert monks so they could track their daily recitations of the psalms. Now, our rosaries have knots between the smooth prayer beads. What could this tell me?  A knot is rough. A bead is smooth. A knot is a difficult place, a place we want to leave. A  prayer bead takes us to a soothing place. But when we pray the rosary, we need the knots to hold the beads.

My first Franciscan knot became part of my first rosary. Marge took a break in teaching us rosary making to drive her 88-year-old husband to a physical therapy appointment. She returned to quickly tie the other three knots—perfect ones—for me because we were running out of time. She invited us to her house to practice knot making. She offered to meet with the teens again and keep working on mission rosaries. I left the finished rosary on the table where Marge had gathered her supplies. We were supposed to be sending the rosaries to the missions. Marge told me to take my rosary home. I think she realized I don’t own a rosary. She told me to keep it in my pocket, so that I could show other parishioners we could make rosaries for missions. In her kindness, perhaps she was looking at me as a mission, too.

To some, my plastic rosary might look simple or tacky. When I pull my rosary out of my pocket, however, I think about all the care that goes into handmade rosaries, no matter their appearance. I think of Marge and her hands and her missions. I feel the cord tying her to the Desert Fathers, who thousands of years ago, were tying their knots.

Because the Mystery Can Never Be Extinguished

My friend Bill has been AWOL from church for months. We used to sit side by side at Adoration and exchange signs of peace at daily Mass. But Bill has been out of work since late 2008, and I’m afraid that he is disconsolate, home alone much of the time. Every so often, though, Bill sends me a sign that his love for The Mystery is not extinguished. Today he sent me a video.

You may have already seen this video of an “empty space” between galaxies taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. The caption says the clip was made last August, but the story it tells is some 13 billion lights years old. So I guess Bill’s video is relatively up to date. And Bill’s sending the video is reason to hope. Pray for him, won’t you?

Check out the video here.

Because of the Living Stations of the Cross

I have a confession to make: the Stations of the Cross used to creep me out. Only in the past year have I begun to understand their beauty and significance. And that is thanks to the Living Stations of the Cross presented by the teens of the  St. Rose of Lima high school youth group in Freehold, New Jersey.

When I was a child, I didn’t want any part of Palm Sunday or Holy Week, or especially Stations of the Cross. That is because to me they were all about this wonderful person, the Son of God, who was murdered most gruesomely. In contrast, I loved Christmas. My dad sang at Christmas Masses and our family of six often would attend Midnight Masses. What a treat to stay up so late and celebrate Christmas, a holiday I understood was about love, about a baby born in inauspicious and unusual circumstances who turns out to be the Savior of the World. It made me feel warm inside.

As for Holy Week, our parents did not take us to Holy Thursday or Good Friday masses. Until I was a mom myself, I never attended Stations of the Cross. And so they remained to me scary images I avoided looking at on the side walls of Catholic churches.

Throughout  my life, the lead-up to Easter was this icky thing, hidden from my view and understanding. And the one Easter Mass I remember attending as a child (though our parents took us every Easter) was when I was eight or so. We were late to Mass and could not find a parking spot at our parish. So my dad drove us over to a church in a neighboring town. I remember the priest intoning during his homily, “You are one Easter closer to your death.” I imagine now that the priest must have said lots of other things—about the Resurrection and the possibility of our own salvation—but that was all I heard. His words terrified me for years.

Because of my spiritual and emotional immaturity, not for nearly four more decades could I begin to fully confront Christ’s suffering, and through that, mature in my faith. Last Lent, a friend and fellow parishioner, Dan Finaldi, invited the Saint Rose of Lima high school youth group in Freehold, one county over, to present Living Stations of the Cross at our parish. Dan is a high school art teacher in Freehold and learned about the project from some of his students.

I didn’t even want to go. But as part of their CCD requirements, our sons had to attend a Stations of the Cross during Lent. This felt like a palatable way to do it. After all, if a bunch of Jersey teens could spend days living the Stations in rehearsal, surely this middle-aged woman would be able to emotionally handle watching a presentation of the Stations. And so I went.

I didn’t even know what “Living Stations” meant. Were the teens going to walk around the church, stop at each station, and reenact it by flashlight? No. Teen actors used the front of our church to create tableaux, station by station. From the ambo, other teens interspersed descriptions of each scene with prayerful meditations on how that event on the road to Calvary related to their own faith journey. From the choir loft, teen musicians, including an electric guitarist and a drummer, sang contemporary hymns and popular tunes that related directly to the meditations.

This approach was a big help to me. At long last, I understood that we cannot fully embrace the message of Christianity unless we embrace Christ’s suffering for us. Stations, as our 10-year-old put it, “is about the road to His death, which, in the end, saves us all.” Last night he came with me and my friend Andy to Living Stations. This time, I meditated on the depth of suffering Christ’s mother endured, and about the kindness of strangers Christ encountered on his journey home. “We cannot take your place,” the teens read. “But help us find our place in the world.”

At the Sixth Station,  in which Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,  a lone teen sang Jewel’s “Hands.”  I thank God for the high school youth group at Saint Rose of Lima for helping me grow up.

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To Root for West Virginia in the Final Four

Why would a Catholic cheer for West Virginia against Duke, Butler, and Michigan State in the NCAA basketball championship? I am trying to be objective here. I am setting aside my intense dislike for Coach K’s #1-ranked unit from Duke. (My daughter is concluding a stellar career at UNC, last year’s champion and Duke’s bitter rival.) No, I am looking at this from a strictly Catholic perspective, with rosary beads entwined in my fingers.

Think about it: The Dukies are the “Blue Devils.” Please! You really gonna root for Satan’s minions?! Michigan State is a good ol’ Big Ten team, and I am a Big Ten fan. But coach Tom Rizzo’s men are “The Spartans.” Pagans! Plus, they defeated Tennessee and Frank is still smarting from the loss. (Frank quote: “Free-throws—sheesh!”)

That leaves Butler and West Virginia. With the last name of Bull, I can see taking a look at the Butler “Bulldogs.” But finally, I have to go with the lads from Morgantown, WV, “The Mountaineers.”

Ever heard of Mt. Sinai? The Sermon on the Mount? I predict West Virginia will do an angry Moses on Duke in the semifinal Saturday, and then wallop the pagans beatifically on Monday night. And Frank likes ‘em too because he is a hillbilly. ‘Nuff said.

So, West Virginia all the way! You heard it here first.


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