To Be More, Not Rich

Frank reminded me of some good advice from Elizabeth Scalia, The Anchoress. When as a blogger you run dry, throw up a video or something. The esteemed Madame A recently posted a scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” My taste runs more to the stodgy. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from “A Man for All Seasons.” Each day each one of us gets to choose: to be More or to be Rich.

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Take Over, Merlin!

How you know you’ve been married twenty-five years: She drives you crazy when she’s there; you go crazy when she’s not. Katie is on the road with some girlfriends this week, and I’m only slightly at loose ends. Which means I may not be posting as much as usual for the next few days. (Did I hear Warren say phew? How many times does a Catholic blogger have to write about David Foster Wallace, anyway? Once? Twice? Enough already!)

I’m not going dark, the way Renée Walker did last night on “24,” but there may be a certain graying-out. Not to worry, though. Frank has the conn, and to judge by this morning’s post, we’re still flying straight.

For the Soul of David Foster Wallace II

Since posting about my favorite writer of fiction, the author of Infinite Jest, I myself have been wondering just what that was doing in a Catholic blog. I received warm validation from comments by the likes of Deacon Scott Dodge, but still. How religious was DFW? I think this will be a question that haunts me, even as I begin my fourth reading of IJ.

This short story published in The New Yorker over a year after DFW’s death bears a possible answer. It starts simply, with the childhood memory of a toy cement mixer. After winding through a page of typically complex ruminations, the story lands at this extraordinary statement:

“The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life.”

Is “All That” short story or memoir? I did not know that DFW ever attended a seminary, which the first-person narrator did; and the heading does read “FICTION.” But whether it is memoir, or story, or (like everything ever written) something in between—and whether or not someone without a religious bone in his body could have written this “fiction”—Wallace’s story of the toy truck is especially touching to me because it bears so closely on the whole question of childhood spirituality that has become something of an obsession for me. And because it confirms my sense that the author of my favorite work of fiction (with the possible exception of Kristin Lavransdatter) was driven by deep religious impulses that God grant may have carried him beyond death.

Read the story, please. Here it is again. It is short; Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages; choose your poison. You will be touched as I have been by this remarkable man and suicide.

Footnote: Here’s a thoughtful reflection on Wallace that also makes the religion connection.

For Friendship

Nothing confirms my conversion more loudly than this: I have never had such friends. It’s conceivable that I was a jerk all my life and only emerged from jerkiness during my first two years as a Catholic, which emergence led people to say, “Gee, I thought he was a jerk, but he isn’t that bad. . . . ” 

That would be a variation on CS Lewis’s “lunatic, liar, or lord.” Take your pick: (1) Webster was a jerk for 56 years; (2) Webster has gone soft in the head now that he’s a Catholic; or (3) there is something about the Catholic faith shared that opens one to deep and abiding friendship. You can say what you want, you have nothing to lose but your faith; as for me, I’m betting the house on (3). Call it Bull’s Wager.

For this Monday morning thought, you can thank EPG, his question and the comments that it evoked, and the readings this morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. The first reading prescribed for the Fourth Monday in Ordinary Time is from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (2:13–3:13) and carries a red-letter subhead, “Paul’s friendship for the Thessalonians.” The entire passage sings of friendship, and it reads like a love letter after a long separation: “When we were orphaned by separation from you for a time—in sight, not in mind—we were seized with the greatest longing to see you.”

Paul recognizes that these friends in Thessaly are more than friends. They are the proof of his faith: “Who, after all, if not you, will be our hope or joy, or the crown we exult in, before our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? You are our boast and our delight.”

They are in fact a witness of the presence of God: “What thanks can we give to God for all the joy we feel in his presence because of you . . . ”

The love of true friendship is a byproduct of that presence, of God’s love for us and ours for Him: “May the Lord increase you and make you overflow with love for one another and for all, even as our love does for you.”

The second reading, from a commentary by Saint Hillary, takes up the theme of friendship and makes a wild but beautiful connection. “It is pleasant and good for brothers to dwell in unity,” he writes, then with the prophet (which one?) compares this Christian friendship with “the ointment on the head which ran down over the beard of Aaron, down upon the collar of his garment”!!

The closing prayer for the day (and the week) wraps the theme in a nice, tight package: “Lord our God, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love all men as you love them.”

The meta-message I took from the discussion about the role of the laity triggered by EPG’s question was summed up beautifully by Warren Jewell. He cited “this delightful club of friends under the YIMC banner.” If this were the first group of friends like this that I have encountered in the Catholic Church, you might go back to Bull’s Wager and select option (2). However, I recognize this “club of friends,” a rather Pickwickian bunch actually, because I have become part of other such clubs in my first two years as a Catholic. Ferde roped me into two of them: the Saturday morning men’s group in our parish and our Friday evening School of Community, “under the banner of” Communion and Liberation (CL).

Let me say this about both of these groups: There have been times when I thought they were not really what I was looking for. But I recognized eventually with each that what was making that judgment was not my heart but my mind in isolation: “The presentations in this group are sometimes not so interesting.” “The discussions of Don Giussani’s writings are sometimes not so focused.” And so on.

What has kept me engaged in each of these groups is my heart, which tells me, These are friends, true friends without ulterior motives, true friends because they share with me a love of Christ. That keeps me coming back.

The picture at the top of this post is from a recent birthday party thrown for Katie by some of our CL friends in Boston. It is a picture of true friendship. It validates my conversion and everything else about my life.

While My Guitar Loudly Prays (Music for Mondays)

Sometimes a couple of guys just have to let their hair down, even if they are a pair of Catholic bloggers and they don’t have as much hair as they once did. It’s Monday, which makes it music time at YIM Catholic. There’s a lot here to pick and choose from. We’ve tried to suggest why these songs matter, but maybe they don’t.
Maverick: Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a flyby.
Air Boss Johnson: That’s a negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.
(You know where that led. Enjoy!)

The Beach Boys, “I Get Around”
We received a few comments (unpublished, thank you very much!) from an agent of the Enemy. Whereupon, in our humble opinion, the Holy Spirit responded by sending our posts on the spiritual lives of children and the death of J.D. Salinger far and wide, thanks to a much-appreciated double hit at New Advent.

My buddies and me are gettin’ real well known,
Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone. . . .

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The Arcade Fire, “Wake Up”
Webster writes: “It has always made sense to me that before we can experience a full spiritual life, we have to, that’s right, Wake Up, People!!!”
Something filled up my heart with nothing,
Someone told me not to cry. 
Now that I’m older, my heart is colder, 
And I can see that it’s a lie. . . .

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Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms,” at Mandela Live 1988
Webster writes: “Best finger-pickin’ guitar in the world. Best message. No further explanation needed.”
There’s so many different worlds, so many different suns.
But we have just one world, though we live in different ones. . . .
We’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms.

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Radiohead, “Creep”
Frank writes, “I heard this song on the radio the morning of J.D. Salingers death, before the news hit the wires. Using a little imagination, this is a modern psalm of lamentation.”

When you were here before, 
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel, 
Your skin makes me cry.
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world.
I wish I was special,
You’re so very special.

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Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather”
SRV died in 1990 in a helicopter crash between gigs.  He had turned his life around with Christianity (probably not Catholic, but not the point) and had turned away from substance abuse, which almost killed him. This is the title cut from his second album. Frank writes: “He was a favorite of mine.  I saw him in concert twice in the two weeks between MSG (Embassy) Duty and an overseas deployment. I was just starting my sophomore year after leaving the Corps when the music died.”

Runnin’ through this business of life,
rarely time if I’m needed to
Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right,
then Daddy’s hand helps to see me through. . . .

Like a train that stops at every station,

we all deal with trials and tribulations

Fear hangs the fellow that ties up his years,

entangled in yellow and cries all his tears
…

To Be Some Day Like Frank G.

My fellow parishioner Frank G.’s daughter died yesterday. I learned about it this morning, just before processing up the aisle as lector #2 for the 8:15 Mass. I looked toward the front of the nave and saw Frank sitting alone in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother. I walked up and gently put my arm around his bony old shoulders. He kindly acknowledged my condolences, then asked how I was:And your family? Everything OK with you?” Typical Frank.

Frank G. is about 85, so his daughter must have been about my age. Frank was AWOL at daily Mass this week as his daughter lay dying of cancer in his home. Usually, as I have written before, he’s one of the first arrivals at daily 7 a.m. Mass, taking up his post in the front row by about 6:20. He pulls down his kneeler and doesn’t move a muscle until five minutes of the hour. I miss Frank when he isn’t there.

I returned to the back of the nave, organist Fred MacArthur struck up the melody from the loft above, and we walked up the aisle singing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” I took my seat at the side of the sanctuary across from Father Barnes and alongside Bill, lector #1. I started thinking of Warren Jewell. Warren wrote one of his many good comments in response to a post about the role of the laity, describing his experience as a lector:

Before a given Mass, I would of course read [my selection] through over and over, including reading it aloud to my beloved Sharon. Sometimes, the words would so sink into me that they would get beyond my mind and heart, and past my spirit all the way down into my emotions. And, I could not read it again aloud without my voice cracking, my being flooding with humility that I am so privileged to read this part of God’s love letter for His children aloud at His Mass in His Church.

I realized, thinking of Warren’s comment, that I had rushed out of the house this morning and had not even read through my selection once. I knew what it was though, and before I rose to read, I told myself that I would dedicate the reading to Frank and his daughter. I have two daughters and cannot imagine losing one of them. Parents are not designed to outlive their children. I climbed into the pulpit and began:

Brothers and sisters: Strive for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.

As I said the word love I glanced at Frank below me to the right. He was still alone before the Blessed Mother, and he was looking down at the missal open on his lap. He looked as though he was studying the words from Corinthians.

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

I glanced at Frank again on the second and third mentions of love. He was still looking down, still studying, and I was stung by a thought. Frank has forgotten more about the meaning of love than I will ever learn, and there he is, acting as though he needs to understand it better!

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrong-doing but rejoices with the turth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Frank is a regular at our Saturday-morning men’s group, although he was not there yesterday, for a reason I now understand. He seldom says much at the group, but no matter how tired he looks, he always seems to listen intently to the speaker, again as though he were the one with things to learn. Then at the end of every meeting, he leads the group in a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. 

One Saturday, I talked about this blog. Frank had nothing to offer, since I doubt he has a computer or even understood what a blog is. I talked for an hour, he listened, and after the prayer to St. Michael, he thanked me and asked after my family.

For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. 

Usually, my voice does not get emotional when I read at Mass. I do my best to give each word its full value, to proclaim the Word as it deserves, but usually I am not moved beyond a certain rudimentary enthusiasm. Never have I felt the upswelling that I felt today with the final words of the reading. If I had looked over at Frank at this moment, I would have lost it completely.

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

As Frank teaches me every time I see him—and as our Pope taught today in his homily—love is indeed the greatest gift.

Thanks to Anne Rice for Asking This Question

In light of Webster’s recent post regarding the roles and responsibilities of the laity, I thought I would share with you some correspondence on a related topic that I have had with Anne Rice, author of the The Vampire Chronicles and the Christ the Lord series. I had written her to share one of Webster’s posts and was flabbergasted when she wrote me back a few hours later.  Sheee-eesh! Be careful what you wish for.

Usually I’m the last to know news like this but I had discovered via Bloomberg News that in 1998 Anne returned to the Catholic Church.  Whaat?! The Vampire Writer? Surprised, I learned of  a new novel she had written entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It is about Christ’s early years from the time when the Holy Family returned to Nazareth from exile in Alexandria, where they had fled in accordance with the instructions an angel had given to Joseph in a dream. She also writes of her return to the Church in detail in an autobiography, Called Out of Darkness.

You haven’t read these books yet? I know, I know, you are swamped with books right now.  So am I! But if you haven’t read them, put them on your list.  And make sure to add the sequel, The Wedding at Cana. And where am I going to find the time to read her new series about angels, which debuted recently with Angel Time? I have no idea.  But I am going to find the time. Anyway, I had written her as follows,

Ms. Rice:

We are kindred spirits despite our obvious and wild differences.  Much like the twelve apostles, huh?  What a motley crew: Zealot resistance fighters (Simon) to fishermen (Peter, Andrew . . . ), to tax collectors (Matthew, despised by all).  Wow!

I’m not gonna take up a lot of your time.  I wanted to share my partner’s latest post with you.  What a story . . . It’s the kind that my friend Blaise Pascal would probably smile at.  He’s probably smiling now (I hope).

Be well and thanks for all that you are doing for Our Lord. Have fun at your book signing in Riverside. Sadly, my family and I will just miss it.  We are coming to Southern California for the Holidays for my in-laws’ 50th anniversary and Christmas and New Years.  Any other signings in So Cal during that time?

Warmest regards and the love of Our Lord be with you Always,

Frank

Ahem, pretty presumptuous, I know, but what the heck? I was sure she wasn’t going to answer anyway. A few hours later I received this reply,

Thanks for your letter.  When you have time, tell me: do you believe that the majority of humans created go to Hell for all eternity? I am finding out that many Christians do believe this. I was not taught this growing up Catholic, and I find it very difficult to believe.  I am curious however as to what others believe.  Thanks for your note.  

Take care, Anne.

I received this note back on December 5, 2009, around lunch time. I had been riding shotgun with Webster at YIM Catholic for all of six days when it arrived in my  e-mail. Gulp!  The Anne Rice, noted author of the Vampire Chronicles and the Christ the Lord series has written back to little ol’ me? Golly! Then I re-read it and thought, whaat?! Is this some kind of a test? I sent her back a rushed reply as follows:

Anne:

I certainly hope not!  Otherwise, I am done for.  No, our God and Father is not limited by our human rules, norms, or best guesses.  The Pareto Effect does not apply to God. I have faith that Our Lord loves all of us so much that He does everything to help guide us to Him. And that is one of the beautiful, just spectacular Graces that Our Lord gives us through His Church. Thanks be to God!

I went to Reconciliation this morning to confess my sins and to speak with my pastor about this blog.  His counsel prompted me to edit this piece I had posted about the Saints yesterday.  While I was doing penance and pondering what I had been counseled on, I knew that I must edit my post as such:

“But don’t worry and please don’t forget the mission of Our King’s Church: to save souls, at any cost. Most of us haven’t been called into the Church’s equivalent of the Officer Corps (Holy Orders). But we can still serve with distinction, whether we are butchers, bakers, or candle-stick makers. Again, one of the heroes of the Church (St. Francis of Assisi) serves as an example to me. ‘Preach the Gospel always,’ he said. ‘Use words if necessary.’ Also, there is no age requirement (17–28 to enlist) either and no minimum or maximum (6–8 years) contract length. Heck you can even get “out” and rejoin! Just ask Anne Rice.”

I hope I answered your question and I thank you for writing me back.

Your friend in Christ,

Frank

I sent another quick note asking her for permission to post her reply, to which she responded, 

It’s fine with me if you share your response.  I never really write confidential emails.  My queries can be shared, of course.  Thanks for the feedback.  I’m pondering.  I started another Discussion on Amazon in the Christianity forum on what people believe about Hell.  I’m interested in the beliefs of all Christians on this. 

Anne

This left me pondering too. Before I was a Catholic, I would have answered her question the way that makes sense to a modern day Pharisee, you know, that most won’t make it to heaven. But you can be sure that I just knew that I would make it. Sigh. But as a Catholic, my frame of reference had changed drastically. Let the scriptures show that,

This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all. (1 Timothy 2:3-6)

and

He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)

I could go on and on with verses from the Bible relating this fact, both Old Testament and New.  Want some more examples?
 
“I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27)

The LORD has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, That all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)

“And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:23)

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. (John 17:1-2)

So I ponder with Anne the astounding and yet true fact that Jesus came to save us all.  Every single last one of us, past, present, and future. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The healthy, the sick, the able and the lame.  You, me, and everyone here in my house and yours, in my town and yours, in my country, and in every other country as far away as Timbuktu and all points in between.  He died for me, and for you. For the whole world. The just, and the unjust.  For the forgiveness of all our sins, past, present and future.

And our free will comes into play in how we approach this fact. Because there is the capacity in heaven for every single soul to be saved. Isn’t that obvious? Space isn’t the problem. The only thing preventing this from occurring is freedom of choice and our temerity in sharing this good news. This freedom God has given us is an inalienable right. We can opt out or we can opt in. But the fact is that we have been given this great freedom to do with as we see fit, from the Original Sin of our first parents.

It is our Christian duty to proclaim the Good News. The Catholic Church actively pursues the saving of souls from the moment of conception until natural death. That isn’t popular with many folks.  Remember the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16) who all received the same wages whether they started working at 5 a.m. or 7 p.m.? That is how the Catholic Church sees it. Deathbed baptisms, confessions, etc? No problem. Because saving souls for Christ is job one and the true mission of the Church, among the laity and religious alike. Did you know that Holy Orders are not required to perform a baptism?

Thanks again for your question, Anne, and may we all keep job onein mind. And for our YIMCatholic readers, I turn Anne’s question over to you. How do you answer it? RSVP. Anne and I thank you in advance for your replies.

A Question About the Laity, Thanks to EPG

We’re becoming awfully bookish here at YIM Catholic: CS Lewis, JD Salinger, DF Wallace. Let’s come back to reality, people! What’s your calling, and mine? More particularly, what are we called to do as Catholic laypeople? This question was raised this week by EPG, an Anglican brother who has been hanging around with us Catholics at YIMC and bringing lots of good questions and answers with him.

Here EPG’s question, in particular, and my preliminary response:

“ . . . the priest must administer the sacraments—no one else can fill that role. So, what I’d like to know is, Are there functions in which laity step in to ‘fill the gaps?’ I think of the men’s group that Webster has described so eloquently—not clergy driven . . . ”

Let me broaden EPG’s kernel of a very good question: What are our particular roles and obligations as Catholic laity?

I gather that in the two decades after Vatican II, Katie did not bar the door, and the lunatics took over the asylum—Catholic lay people thinking (some of them) that they were taking over the Church. My revered and beloved pastor, Father Barnes, pointed out in a homily that, no, we do not have an open invitation to take over for the priesthood, but that yes, we do have an obligation: to evangelize.

Is that correct? If so, what does it mean to you? Or do you see a broader role for the laity, male and/or female? How do you fulfill your role—completely, usefully, happily—as a Catholic lay person?

On a personal note, I do different stuff in our parish: lector, serve at the altar, teach CCD. But I have also considered the possibility of becoming a permanent deacon. I thought of this again today, courtesy of a comment from Deacon Scott Dodge, who is a contributor to some very interesting blogs. You can find them all listed here.

And while mulling the diaconate thought over the past months, I have found, quite to my surprise, that this blog, sometimes quite in spite of myself, is fulfilling an evangelical function. And that maybe the Spirit is inviting me to explore this direction, not that one.

Your thoughts? What do you see as the proper role of the laity, and how do you fulfill that role?

For the Soul of David Foster Wallace

The death of JD Salinger on Thursday and a comment from a reader on Friday about John Knowles have brought my own favorite fiction writer to mind. Sixteen months ago, David Foster Wallace (left) committed suicide by hanging himself. Compared with this final act, JD Salinger’s professional suicide, hiding out from the world in a hermitage, is small potatoes. But both lives, both deaths remind us how fragile, how transitory our highest impulses are, and how much we need God in our lives. Without God, it’s all just a big damn mess.

Let’s be clear about both JDS and DFW. In our enlightened post-modern culture, they were gods. At least I thought so—Salinger when I was Holden Caulfield’s age in the late 1960s, Wallace ten years ago when I read his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, for the first of three times, mostly while guffawing my guts out on a trip with Katie and the girls. I haven’t read it again since becoming a Catholic, and I’m not sure I would even like it now.

You don’t want to know what it’s about. Written in the mid-1990s about a dystopian near-future when years are named for products (The Year of Glad opens the book), Infinite Jest is set in a tennis academy and in the halfway house for substance abusers that happens to be next door. The main characters are tennis whiz Hal Incandenza, a possibly schizophrenic adolescent, not unlike Holden, who spends most of his time high on marijuana; and Don Gately, a recovering pill-popper who receives a terrible injury defending someone on the streets and dominates the last 100 pages of the novel, lying semicomatose in bed and hoping the nurses won’t administer painkillers, which will only re-addict him. Oh, and there’s a video so insidiously alluring that, once you sit to watch it, you become catatonic; the video is sought by a Quebecois terrorist cell that hopes to use it on the American population. You see, you didn’t want to know.

But here’s the thing, the very sad thing: Despite clinical depression (he went off his medication at the end, probably prompting the suicide), Wallace was basically a positive person, and IJ is shot through with silent prayers for humanity. Wallace told an interviewer that he wrote the novel to express a deep sadness he felt about our culture and its many forms of addiction. To my mind, that sadness clearly was the bedrock of a sincere hope for humanity (his and mine). I think he thought his writing could make a difference, but though he was perhaps the most inventive writer of his generation, he lost his way and, with it, his hope.

Without God? . . . Ultimately, without faith in ultimate redemption any hope is bootless. God is notably absent from both Catcher in the Rye and Infinite Jest. I did not know JD Salinger (who did?) but I will pray for David Wallace, because I knew and loved him well.

YIM Catholic Book Club — Update

Frank has started a good discussion about C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, our current book club selection. In the second week of reading, we have about 30 comments in just two days, a sort of rolling discussion involving ten people. But there’s still room at the table. Check out the latest post, get yourself a copy of Mere Christianity, and let us hear from you!


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