“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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For All the Saints: Popes Cletus and Marcellinus

Two Popes of the early Church sit on opposite corners of the portico ceiling of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Today, we celebrate their feast days. The two men served as Popes two centuries apart. What they share is that their pontificates occurred during times of great torture and persecution for professing Christians under Roman rule. Reflecting on the lives of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus puts into perspective the trials the faithful now are facing.

To be a Pope in the first three centuries after Christ was to face the prospect of death by Roman authorities. Pope Cletus was the third pope and reigned from 76 to 88. Marcellinus was Pope from 296 to 304. Cletus, like St. Peter before him, was martyred. Marcellinus himself was not martyred; instead he died a natural death in an era when scores of Christians, including St. George, were murdered for their faith. Thanks be to God, we live in a world where, with a few notable exceptions, Christians are not being killed for their beliefs. But the Church still faces enemies, both in the secular world, as well as from sinners within our own ranks.

The first persecutions of Christians happened in Rome, a generation after Christ, under the reign of Nero. This was several years before Cletus became Pope. The tyrant, who killed his own mother and eventually committed suicide, arrested and tortured Christians in Rome. Some were crucified. Others were burned alive. Their bodies were eaten by dogs. It is stunning to consider that just six years before Cletus became pope, a new Emperor, Titus, destroyed the City of Jerusalem, then the hub of Christianity. Until then, Christians were considered a sect of the Jews. Cletus was a Greek ordained by St. Peter. As Pope, St. Cletus ordained at least 25 priests. Here was a man of great faith who knew the dangers he faced by leading the Church.

As for St. Marcellinus, he died in 304, one year after St. George was martyred during the great Diocletian persecution. During this persecution, Roman authorities confiscated the Callistus Catacomb, which for 100 years had been the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. Martyrs and Popes had been buried there. Christians blocked the main entrances to the catacomb to protect the tombs. It is hard to imagine living and dying in such a time.

Sts. Cletus and Marcellinus’s lives tell us that, as improbable as it seems, the Church is indestructible, no matter the filth within the Church or the attacks from outside Her. We must continue to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, for the children damaged by priest-criminals, and, yes, for the souls of their predators, too.

May your continual pity, O Lord, cleanse and defend Your Church; and, because without you she cannot endure in safety, may she ever be governed by Your bounty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.

For the Joys of Prayerful Silence

Guest Post by Warren Jewell
The general quiet and often hushed silence of my solitude is a remedy, consolation, comfort, and luxury, like an unspoken call to prayer a hundred times a day. My effective muezzin is my own heartbeat, you see. I have forsworn TV all my adult life; I own no radio; I long ago gave away my sound equipment. Life can sound so much like the crash and the fury and the cry. And, when my littlest grandchild has Mommy call Grandpa to ‘talk,’ her gentle gurgles and attempts to convey her blossoming feelings can mean something to one more and more acculturated to hear God in every little natural sound. As yet, no words: just an angel’s innocence.

If I sometimes suffer in loneliness, and I do, in the course of my daily rounds I more often thank God for the silence that speaks of that loneliness in softest terms; and I can hear God come closer to my side. “Silence, son, and know that I am your God, and your Best-Beloved.” I live in a carpeted chapel within an out-of-the-way cloister.

In our noisy modern times, we just don’t get enough hush, or quiet, and even less, silence. I have found my secret place, time, life era, etc., to have those nearly from God’s own hand. In just my writing about it, you may hear the blessing of it.

I don’t urge such conditions on another. A big aspect of it, and heart of the loneliness present, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: widowhood from my best friend, my late wife, Sharon. However, all things work to the good of those who take to trusting God about it all, and He is goodness and love personified, and who needs much else? In the silence one can find that God, so full of Good News, just can’t hold His tongue for ten minutes in a row. The soft speech He gifts me with can make me wish the silence, on human and earthly parts, would go on forever.

We all need such times so that God’s messages can come through. At Mass, the Church helps by affixing the messages common for the day, and that is wonderful. But God has personal messages for each of us, and we must find the silence to give our ears, and souls, spirits, wills, minds and hearts, to Him. So find your own little chapel. Make some time and place your cloister. Closing your eyes and having the simple white noise of an electric fan might help. However, do get yourself so alone in silence that God can’t resist getting so close He whispers sweet everythings to you.

Oh, it won’t happen every time. But to have it even once from out of a myriad of silences lets you know that your Redeemer lives, and He lives that He can love and bless you, He can comfort and console you, He can give you Himself in His own intimate way just for you.

It really isn’t such a privilege to you or to me. Remember, you are His child. It is He Who makes the event special, and He Who privileges Himself to have you so intimately open to Him.

I suppose that I could go on and on about this, for much of God’s gifts of peace, joy, assurance, guidance and other wonderful things come out of prayerful silence for me. Even of paradox the ascending descent into humility grows within me. To finish, may God find His glory shine in silent love with you.

Be so kind, O Lord, to frequently remind me that I am always in Your Holy Presence, and You are in my humble presence.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Because He Works Through Us

Today we have another reflection from our guest Julie Cragon of Nashville, Tennessee.  It is a powerful example of how Christ works through His children and allows us to be His partners in the “ministry of reconciliation” as “we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Guest post by Julie Cragon

I was gently reminded today of one of my favorite prayers by St. Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.”

I give each of my children’s teachers a card with this prayer as a thank-you note at the end of the school year. With all I see that goes on in schools today, I know that Christ works through these men and women as they witness to our Catholic faith. But this prayer also brings to mind an encounter this past February on a Saturday, when Nashville was pretty well shut down due to icy road conditions. My husband, Allen, and I ventured to open our bookstore  around 10:30 or 11:00, answer a few phone calls,  and wait on a handful of customers.

Our first transaction of the day was actually a return, so we started $3.48 in the red. We laughed  at the irony that we’d worried about a potential “loss of business day.” Then a man came for a Baptismal candle he needed for Sunday, and he was glad to see that we had braved the storm to be open for a few hours. But the real reason God sent us to open for those few hours came  in the door a little after noon.

 A young mom and dad and two young boys, maybe 4 and 6, arrived and walked straight up to the counter. The young father said, “Let me ask you. We have a son in intensive care and I heard a story about a little boy being critical and getting well and telling his parents that he was going to miss the little boy who brought him back. What saint would that be? Would that be St. Christopher?”
This brought about story after story of different saints who protect and defend and about archangels and miracles. The couple never moved from the front counter as Allen and I went up and down the stairs for inexpensive medals and coins and holy cards and I told story after story. I was so glad that I had spent hours researching and writing the mini bio cards of saints so that I could not just show this couple the cards but tell them a little about the saints and angels.
The two young brothers stood there good as gold waiting for us to give their daddy something to make their brother come back home and play with them again. Finally, after about 45 minutes or so the family left with a little bag of a few medals and cards. But what they really held was a little hope. We were meant to be there that day if only for a few hours. This young couple and their boys needed to be in the quiet atmosphere of the store and amid God’s peace. Allen and I had nothing to do with helping these people or their seriously injured nine-year-old son in intensive care. All we did was show up. And for that moment, it was enough. May God hold them in the palm of His hand.

To Recapture the Faith of My Youth

The joint was jumping as I entered the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Saturday, April 17. The nave was filling for the 2010 Boston Catholic Men’s Conference, and I was attending for the first time. I didn’t expect a rockish sort of band singing faith songs in front of a video screen that flashed the lyrics or hundreds of men on their feet, sort of swaying, sort of clapping, depending on their age and level of inhibition. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself beside Dick from Foxboro and wonder what had happened to my faith when I turned fifteen.

I learned Dick’s name only later. What I was first aware of was a guy in a New England Patriots slicker, somewhat older than my 58 years, on his feet, bobbing his head, clapping his feet, and definitely totally into it, singing something about loving Jesus. I was momentarily embarrassed for Dick. Then, for quite a while longer, I was embarrassed for myself and brought up short by my embarrassment.

The music was good, the lyrics inspiring, the temperature rising—and yet there was some kind of reserve wedged between my heart and a mind that had grown skeptical, then cynical during my boarding school years. Before I left home at fifteen, I was an Episcopal altar boy thinking about becoming an Episcopal minister. By the time, three years later, that I had completed “the best educational years of my life” (as I’ve always considered them), I had been led away (e-ducatus) from an innocent faith to a sophisticated agnosticism.

What had done the trick? The 800 boys, each of whom thought he was smarter than his neighbor? The religion classes that were really an indoctrination in existentialism? Or just the wise-guy, butt-smoking smart-aleckness of teenage kids, with no parentis in loco and little available in the way of a faith experience? Our daily “chapel” was really an assembly without the pretense of devotion. Maybe we had an invocation, once, at the beginning of the year, I don’t remember.

It strikes me that becoming Catholic has turned my world view, and my self view, butt over teakettle. Because I understand now that the same seductive cultural forces that we Catholic parents worry about when we think of our children in today’s world were working their magic, 1960s style, with me, just when I thought I was getting the best education money could buy, just when I thought I was so smart.

I’m probably not shocking anyone by writing this. Unless you were raised in a strongly evangelical setting and went to a Christian college, you probably had a similar experience of adolescence. The amazing thing is that I ever recovered. Because I was an insufferable wise guy by the time I went to college, reading Camus (pictured) with a Marlboro hanging off my lip, reciting Beckett while trucking around campus with my hands thrust deep in my pockets, thinking that Kafka must have been an amazingly cool guy, mostly because I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote.

In college began my long and winding path back to the church, stretching through 35 years of midlife, my “prime working years.” I’ve documented that path before in this space. But right now, I’m back beside Dick from Foxboro wondering about that reserve, the residue of doubt and skepticism that is often (always?) still there, a lasting legacy of my Exeter years. How do I grind that doubt away? How do I fully reopen my heart and silence the agnostic in my mind, so that next year I can be on my feet from the opening bell, clapping and singing along with the guy in the Patriots slicker?

I have been asking myself these questions all week long.

For All the Saints: George

I live in a time and a country where many Christians take their faith for granted. If it hadn’t been for brave souls such as St. George throughout history, however, despots might have  destroyed that faith.

When  I was a child, my parents had a small print in their study of Saint George slaying a dragon whose tail wrapped around the edges of the print. In deep blues and greens, the print hung on a corner wall  near my parents’ dictionary stand and our set of World Book encyclopedias. I knew, of course, that St. George was the stuff of British folklore and no more real than Robin Hood. I was wrong. 

The real St. George, depicted above in this bronze sculpture by early Renaissance artist Donatello, lived in the fourth century after Christ. He was born in Turkey to Christian parents. When his father died, he and his mother moved to her ancestral home in Palestine. When he was 17, George joined the Roman army and became known for his bravery.

He served under pagan Emperor Diocletian. For much of his reign, Diocletian allowed Christians to prosper. When the Emporer started persecuting Christians, however,  George protested. But in 302, edicts were issued to suppress Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

George was imprisoned and tortured. He did not back down. He stayed true to his beliefs and for this, he was beheaded in Palestine on April 23, 303. The Church of St. George in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, contains his tomb. The church is an Eastern Orthodox Shrine. The Greek Orthodox Church calls George “the Great Martyr” and his feast day is a Holy Day of Obligation. Most interestingly, many Muslims venerate Saint George as well. 

The year George was martyred, 303, began the “Great Persecution,” against Christians. Diocletian issued a series of decrees to force Christians to pledge allegiance to an imperial cult. An edict was issued “to tear down the churches to the foundations and to destroy the Sacred Scriptures by fire; and commanding also that those who were in honourable stations should be degraded if they persevered in their adherence to Christianity.” Can you imagine living under such conditions? Do you think you would be bold enough to risk your life for your faith?

It got worse. “Three further edicts (303-304) marked successive stages in the severity of the persecution: the first ordering that the bishopspresbyters, and deacons should be imprisoned; the second that they should be tortured and compelled by every means to sacrifice; the third including the laity as well as the clergy. The atrocious cruelty with which these edicts were enforced, and the vast numbers of those who suffered for the Faith are attested by Eusebius and the Acts of the Martyrs.”

About 10 years after George’s death, the Christian emperor Constantine came to power and George, along with other martyrs, was revered as a saint. From there,  legend about St. George developed. During the First Crusades, the story was he slayed a dragon. At that time, dragons symbolized the Devil. George is said to have appeared to the crusading armies at the Battle of Dorylaeum, in 1097, and the Siege of Antioch, in 1198. Both were great crusading victories, and so St George came to be seen as a protector of Christian soldiery.

Saint George, who is the patron saint of England, found his way into British literature. He is mentioned in Spencer’s Faerie Queene, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.

I do love good stories, and the ones about George are fanciful and fun. But they also do a grave injustice to this saint who, after all, was an ordinary man of faith living in a tumultuous times. The real story of St. George is powerful without embellishment: Once upon a time, George, a brave Roman soldier, endured  torture and death so generations to come might be blessed with the gift of Christian faith.

O God, who didst grant to Saint George strength and constancy in the various torments which he sustained for our holy faith; we beseech Thee to preserve, through his intercession, our faith from wavering and doubt, so that we may serve Thee with a sincere heart faithfully unto death. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Because Sorrow Enriches Us

More than once, I’ve had my heart shattered. In my late teens, my first love left me without warning. In my late twenties, I lost my former college boyfriend to a drug overdose. In my late thirties, I nearly lost my beloved husband to a terror attack. Since then, until most recently, I have been haunted by a recurring dream that my wonderful, loyal Greg would not marry me, despite the life we’ve built together. The shock of nearly losing my husband has echoed in my heart. Only now, in my late forties, do I realize that the sorrows I’ve carried have woven themselves into the tapestry that is me. A recent encounter with my teen-aged self taught me that my sorrow has been a helpful companion. [Read more…]