A quick post to pass along something Father Barnes sent out this morning. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a click, and how will you know if you’ve seen it if you don’t click?
Views of a new Catholic in an old world on the joy and inexhaustible meaning found in the Faith
A quick post to pass along something Father Barnes sent out this morning. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a click, and how will you know if you’ve seen it if you don’t click?
I once could hear and then was deaf and now can hear again. I’m not talking about conversion. I’m talking about recovering from last night’s U2 concert. The pope is not a fan of rock concerts, as in hypnotic screaming mayhem. But isn’t BXVI giving Bono an audience? Well, I was in Bono’s audience last night.
Am I taking liberties with the usual format of Q: Why Am I Catholic? / A: Because of . . . ? Well, maybe. But since I can list my “great concert experiences” (*) on one hand, shouldn’t I be allowed some liberties?
Furthermore, it’s Sunday, our Lord’s Day, and this post might be a way of resting from the serious business of explaining “Why I Am Catholic.” You don’t buy that? I don’t buy it either. Read on.
* Since you asked, they were: (1) seeing Janis Joplin front “Big Brother and the Holding Company” at the Fillmore East in 1968; (2) sneaking through a window in the Mt. Holyoke College chapel to find myself on stage with James Taylor mid–”Carolina in My Mind,” circa 1970; (3) sitting again on stage, but this time in the UMass Amherst gymnasium and literally in front of the bass amplifier for Gracie Slick and the boys, a/k/a “Jefferson Airplane,” circa ditto; (4) taking my four-year-old daughter Martha to a “New Kids on the Block” gig at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, having her go all delirious over the opening act, then having her fall asleep in my arms as the Wahlbergs and their homies sang the first song, about 1990; and finally (5) going butt wild myself over “Speedway at Nazareth” during a Mark Knopfler–Emmy Lou Harris concert in Boston two or three years ago.
Now, I’ll always have Bono and me.
The back story: When Katie and I were traveling through Ireland with our daughters about seven years ago, I had a pair of Bono shades. (And if you want to see what Bono shades look like on another very holy person, check out this picture.) Somewhere around Sligo, I think, I began telling Martha and Marian that I was planning to write memoir called Bono and Me.
The second back story: We came to Chapel Hill Thursday and were informed by Marian that after the football game Saturday we would be going to “a tailgate” chez a friend of her friend Win. She said that there would a mariachi band at the tailgate. I jokingly said to tell Win that I wasn’t coming to any tailgate for anything less than U2. No, I did not know U2 was playing in Raleigh Saturday night. Saturday morning, Marian asked me if I wanted to see U2 that evening. What?! “Win will get tickets.” Win was my new best friend.
The concert: Think of a giant space spider pouncing at about the 40-yard-line of a major college football stadium, then letting down a 360-degree video screen on the heads of four teeny musicians from Ireland and you’ve got the picture. Bono asked, “How do you like our spaceship?” and referred to the video screens (which showed live action) as an attempt to create “intimacy on a grand scale.” They did.
Smartest thing the band did was building to a crescendo with some of their most recognizable tunes, especially “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” after a speech from Bono about rights abuses in Tehran, and “One,” as a sort of world-unifying anthem. Gotta hand it to the quartet: They’ve stuck together for thirty-plus years, and they’ve stuck to message. The concert was generous (over two hours), including two long encores. Most moving was a walk by the lead man around the outer ring of the stage with a boy named Brian from the audience, whilst Brian wore Bono glasses and Bono sang “City of Blinding Lights.” Halfway through the tune, the pair broke into a bounding, joyous run.
Because of Bono and Me? I am a Catholic, and that gives me joy. Last night, in the company of Katie, Marian, and Win, I experienced joy. Part of it was the concert. Part was the company. Part was the enormous harvest moon that hung overhead in the open-air stadium, directly in front of Bono, no less. Part was getting into bed in one piece, with the pillow on reverb. But joy it was. So there is an equivalence here, a Bono=joy=Catholic=me, and if I’m not mistaken, he’s a good Irish Catholic lad himself. I’m Catholic, married to an Irish lass.
“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is still the greatest rock song ever written. And as we were reminded again last night, Sundays on this planet, God bless us, are never without their share of blood.
You know how God used to speak to a teenage girl on the TV show “Joan of Arcadia,” like a modern-day Joan of Arc? True story: Sometimes “Joan of Arcadia” speaks to me. Which amounts to a kind of Apostolic transmission, from God’s mouth to my ear through Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn).
As Adam Rove (Chris Marquette) would say, Cha.
Latest example: I had just finished a post about St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her calling (love) and my singing (bass). This had left questions rolling around in my brain about talents, as in mine, and how Christ, in a parable, asks us to use them. But what exactly are talents—in my case, in anyone’s case—and how should they be used? I hopped on a JetBlue flight for RDU with Katie to see our younger daughter, MRB, at UNC; fired up the DVD player to watch more tales of “Joan”; and what was the next CBS episode in prospect for this series of posts about a long-cancelled show that no one asked me to write? None other than “The Boat,” in which Joan discovers she has a talent she never knew she had and she’s not sure she needs and would like to trade in. Double cha. Did I heard God saying “Cha-cha-cha”?
Girardi family subplots swirl. Chief of police Will Girardi, a/k/a Dad (Joe Mantegna), is tracking what may be a serial cop killer, while trying to persuade Joan’s older brother, Kevin (Jason Ritter), newly paralyzed following a car accident, to take up wheelchair basketball. Meanwhile, Joan relents, finds a set of plans, and begins fulfilling God’s commandment in her basement. Miraculously, she seems to have a talent for boatbuilding—cutting pieces without measuring and finding that they fit perfectly.
Later that night, God calls—as the host of a call-in show on the radio Joan is listening to in her bedroom. Joan is sad because she just overheard Dad and Kevin arguing. Kevin is wallowing in self-pity and has refused to take up wheelchair basketball. Dad is a good dad and just doesn’t know how to communicate with his son anymore. The crisis between father and son will continue to escalate.
Voice on the radio: Our next caller is . . . Joan from Arcadia!
Joan (looking up from bed, puzzled): Who, me?
God on radio: Thanks for joining us on Chat Lines. What’s your question?
Joan: You’ll answer questions? (God doesn’t usually, not here)
God: Go ahead, Joan.
Joan (pulling herself together for this rare opportunity): I found I had this incredible talent I never had before. I love it, but it’s the wrong talent.
God: What would be the right talent?
Joan: Making things better between people I love?
God: What’s your question?
Joan: Can I trade?
Here my inner ear started to open, listening to God’s voice as transmitted by “Joan”:
God: Sometimes one talent is all talents. Everything that rises must converge. You’re doing great work, Joan. Important work. Be thankful for what you can do. Don’t trade it away. And don’t let anyone talk you out of it, no matter how reasonable they sound.
Joan: No tradesies?
God: Moving on to . . . Corrina, who has love problems!
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is the title of a story by Flannery O’Connor, but I say, let’s forgive God for this teeny bit of plagiarism; after all, he absolves us of so much. And God’s point is cool. Whatever the talent you’re given, follow it, use it, nurture it. Because “sometimes one talent is all talents”? What does that mean exactly? I think it means that whatever talent God gives us is ultimately important because it is God’s gift and therefore “more than all,” to borrow a phrase from e. e. cummings highlighted in a recent post. Above all: “Don’t trade it away.” Don’t think that you’d be better off with another talent and go off trying to be something you’re not, when all along God is telling you to be this. “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord,” the Invitatory Psalm 95 tells us each morning. So no matter who tries to convince you otherwise, stick with your talent, however humble. Thérèse of Lisieux knew she wasn’t cut out for prophecy or miracles; she understood that God had given her a “simple” gift, just love. It made her a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
Joan doesn’t listen, not yet anyway, and when Mr. Price (Patrick Fabian as the increasingly diabolic principal), calls her into his office and cruelly makes fun of her boatbuilding, she loses her mojo. This is Adam’s diagnosis when he walks into her basement that night and finds her in despair over not being able to continue the project. He then tells her how, first day of school, he tried to impress Price with his piano playing, which in Adam’s unconventional fashion included banging the keys with his elbow and playing a final glissando on the piano strings with his shoe. Price said, “You gotta be kidding.” Says Adam, “Since that day I can’t even whistle. Somewhere Price has got this coffin full of miraculous things kids could do before he stole them.”
Chief Girardi faces a similar crisis of confidence when his men think he’s not using the right approach to finding the “serial cop killer.” But he proves to be right in sticking to the book: Turns out the killings were not serial at all, and there was no cop killer involved. Or rather there was: the killer, in the second case, was a cop!
A final visit from God clears things up for Joan. She’s working late in the bookstore and talking with Adam, who has just asked her if she has a secret she’s not sharing. She is about to tell him about her talks with God when she hears a voice from the back of the store. It’s a little old lady. Joan never saw her come in.
Lady: You were about to tell Adam.
Joan: Did you give me a boat-making mojo and then take it away?
Lady=God: What did I tell you on the radio?
Joan: Not to let anyone talk me out of pursuing my project. You mean Price? Is what Adam said true? Is Price, like, evil?
God: The thing about fear is, it doesn’t leave room for anything else like beauty, purpose.
Joan: So did you just pop up to stop me from telling Adam?
God: I don’t pop. I abide. I’m eternal. Remember free will. It’s a burden asking someone to believe you. You don’t know how many burdens the boy is already bearing. Maybe you should take on some of his burdens.
In a final silent coda, Kevin wheels alone into Joan’s basement workshop, sees the boat skeleton for the first time, and smiles quizzically. Then he puts the cigarette he was about to light behind his ear, picks up Joan’s plans, and studies them. Then he sets to work fixing the boat. Dad walks in. He picks up the plans and the two agree that a couple of changes need making. It’s obvious that the two have something in common again, a boat they will build together. And as the exit music comes up, the camera pans to find Joan’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and then Joan looking into the workshop from a window . . . and . . . smiling.
I smile a lot watching this show. “The Boat” left me thinking of this blog again, perhaps a tiny talent that God has given me to use well. Which, if I do, could have untold positive consequences for others (you, gentle reader?) just as Joan’s boat venture helped reconcile Dad and Kevin. And above all not to make it into something it isn’t—not catechism (I don’t know enough to teach you), not prophecy (I don’t know what’s going to happen today, much less tomorrow), and certainly not politics (not my bag, man). Just a story here and there from a guy who found Catholicism through God’s grace and in 58 years has never been happier. Cha.
For the first few hours after my post hit the Web, there were no answers to my question, “What poem has inspired you in your religious life?” and I started asking myself, “Don’t these people read?!” It was just about when I had started to lose faith (isn’t it always the way?) that a trickle turned to a stream, and I can now report to you a fine list of verse and other odds and ends that you might turn to next time you lose faith.
First—I should have predicted this—there were Psalms (especially 23) and hymns proposed. Of the latter, my favorite is “For All the Saints,” which happens to be the title of my very first post. Another suggestion, “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist Did Pray,” is new to me, mostly because, unlike “For All the Saints,” it is not featured in the Episcopal hymnal from which I sang as a young teen. The reader cited especially this lovely verse, praying for unity:
We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.
A personal note on Psalm 23: I sometimes use it to put myself to sleep at night, but in the King James translation which I learned almost as early as I learned The Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. . . .” I understand that the current version in use in the Catholic liturgy is more accessible to the contemporary American ear, but every time I get to “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose,” I cringe. I am aware that this is not the desired response, that perhaps it is even confessable—a terrible moral quandary! But I digress.
Ferde proposed two items, one of them a poem and both too long to cite, but they’re good ones: “The Divine Comedy ought to get a mention here,” he wrote. “A little long to post, but what sticks with me is Dante’s polling of the population of hell.” My fishing buddy (as in fishers of men, usually, we don’t catch many real fish) went on: “If I can stray from poetry, James Agee’s short novel A Death in the Family is deeply spiritual. I read it over 40 years ago and it’s still with me. This novel and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with Walker Percy) are Agee’s only notable work. He squandered his enormous talent writing movie reviews for The Nation magazine, drinking to excess, and chain-smoking cigarettes. He got out of a cab in New York one afternoon and dropped dead right there on the sidewalk. Not yet 50.”
Of the poets cited, Francis Thompson (pictured here) gets a gold star, as The Hound of Heaven is the only poem cited by more than one reader. Father Hopkins (Gerard Manley) is probably the winner, though, not only because I have already written about him here (and all matters of taste on this blog are adjudicated finally by moi-même) but also because readers cited two of his poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire and God’s Grandeur, with its great final couplet (“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”). Meanwhile, I’ll give a silver star to W. H. Auden, since I had already written a post on his “Ballad of Barnaby,” which triggered this survey, which prompted yet another reader to cite Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Said the reader, “It’s not what you’d call upbeat, but it’s a great portrayal of our constant longing for something better, something which we as Christians find in God.”
There were votes for John Donne (“Holy Sonnet XIV“), William Butler Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium“), G. K. Chesterton (“The Ballad of the White Horse,” much too long to cite but available here), and the always perplexing Ezra Pound (“Ballad of the Goodly Fere“). Female poets included Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (“Aurora Leigh“) and (sweet!) “my Aunt, Sr. Marie Emmanuel Streit, S.C. (1904-1991) Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati,” who wrote “Aspiration”:
A wild canary flashes by,
(like arrow sped from unseen bow
To pierce a target in the sky!)
I watch its swift unswerving flight
And think how very glad I’d be
If I could wing as sure a way
O Heart of God, my goal, to Thee!
Finally, ’tis strange, there was a citation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, surely among the darkest of English-language plays but inspiring to at least one Catholic. I’ll leave you pondering this bit of verse from the Bard:
But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
In the Office of Readings today we learn how Thérèse of Lisieux came to understand her vocation: She realized that she was too insignificant to be an apostle, prophet, teacher, or martyr. Instead, she realized, “My call is love.” This leads to a question: In the great body of the Church, what, Lord, am I?
It’s a matter of “knowing one’s place,” isn’t it? As a recent convert, I realize sometimes that (a) my place is near the back of the line, but also that (b) people will see or hear me precisely because I’m a convert at the back of the line. We know this: converts can be very inspiring to cradle Catholics.
But while I’m standing here in line, what, Lord, should I be doing? Giving speeches? Handing out food? Caring for the sick? If I know myself and my talents, such as they are, I’m pretty sure I know what I should be doing. I should be singing.
I have always loved to sing, and when fellow parishioner Nancy Patch invited me to join the choir this summer at St. Mary Star of the Sea, I jumped at the chance. I can read music, sort of, not the way Fred, our choirmaster, can read, not even the way a good sight singer can read. But I can find my way around a clef, with or without accidentals.
I used to stand beside my father and mother in the Episcopal Church, where the hymns were always written out in four parts (I wish our Catholic hymnal had parts), and I would muddle my way through the tenor line until about age fourteen, then after that the bass line. And I loved hearing how my voice, when on pitch, blended with the melody.
This is what I love about singing in the St. Mary’s choir. Not being a soloist, heaven forbid, my voice just isn’t sweet enough, but blending, riding the wave of the basses behind me, and adding just a bit of water, or maybe sometimes oil, to the wave. The few times I’ve sung with the choir so far have been joyous times, adding my voice to the heavenly chorus (the choir loft is very high), and feeling the church fill with our harmonies. Of course, having a choirmaster like Fred makes a big difference.
Today, on the feast of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, this seems to me a good way of looking at this blog—another place, a tiny niche, within the great body of the Church, where I can make my small contribution. There are many kinds of bloggers, I already know this, after just six weeks. In the Catholic blogosphere, there are great prophets and prophetesses, like Elizabeth over at The Anchoress, and there are teachers, like Greg at The Deacon’s Bench and Rocco at Whispers in the Loggia. There are some wonderful Catholic-mother blogs, like Blessed Among Men and Minnesota Mom. None of these “parts” suits me.
I’m happy being down at the lower end of the register, riding the wave of basses stronger than I am. Let my sound be only harmonious, Lord. Let it help fill out the heavenly harmony, filling your Church with hymns of praise.
Now, off to North Carolina, to see my daughter!
Now and then I’ll publish guest posts from friends of this blog around the globe. This lovely piece was written by a long-lost schoolmate of mine who prefers to remain anonymous. I’ve already written about Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux) in recent days, so I’ll let my old chum observe her feast day here.
But being free of Catholicism led to being free of God, which did not work out so well. By age thirty, I was asking Him for help and got it. I have been back in the Catholic Church, more or less, for twenty years now—done some reading and made some retreats along the way. But this year, I awakened. I now consciously attune myself to the liturgical calendar. I go to confession frequently and Mass as often as three times a week. This summer, a week-long silent retreat using St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises had a huge impact. The retreat included a one-on-one general confession with the retreat master. I attend Latin Mass at least once a week. I even bought a secondhand Sacred Heart of Jesus print for ten dollars, frame and all. Then I spent way too much getting it framed with olive wood from Italy.
This year, I have discovered that the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture I used to see at my grandmother’s house wasn’t so old-fashioned after all. In 1887, fourteen-year-old Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, France, “code-pinked” a Pope. Thérèse sought to enter a Carmelite convent at age fifteen, years before the normal age of twenty. She had already confronted her French bishop at his home and been told no. During a papal audience in Rome, Thérèse—who had been instructed not to speak to the Pope—grabbed Pope Leo XIII’s hand and begged a “great favor.” When the Pope diplomatically suggested that she do whatever French authorities decided, her response was to put her clasped hands on his knee and pretty much tell him his answer was not good enough. Thérèse needed a yes. All she got was Pope Leo’s finger on her lips and a blessing as the Swiss Guards pulled her away. It is said that the old Pope followed her with his eyes for a long time.
Three months after her fifteenth birthday, Thérèse Martin did enter the Carmel at Lisieux. Inside, she took the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Less than ten years later, at age twenty-four, ravaged by tuberculosis, Thérèse died an obscure nun. In the months before her death, she had said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.” She also said, “I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth.” On October 4, 1897, the door to Lisieux Carmel, a door that can only be opened from inside, swung open. Thérèse Martin’s simple coffin was carried out past three of her biological sisters who, as Carmelites themselves, did not leave the convent, even for the burial of their own sister. A priest and a handful of relations and friends walked the simple coffin to the cemetery.
As was customary, the Carmel at Lisieux sent out a written account of Thérèse’s life to other Carmels. In part because she died so young and was not well known, the Carmel decided to send Thérèse’s own account of her life, known now as Story of a Soul. In the three years before her death, while very sick, she had written the account in a copybook using a pencil during the little spare time she had. The book went out to other Carmels in October 1898. Within a few weeks, letters arrived at Lisieux asking for more copies. Then came the first letters describing miraculous physical healings and spiritual conversions connected with Thérèse’s book. Such letters have never stopped coming. They come from all over the world.
On March 26, 1923, the door at Carmel Lisieux that can only be opened from inside swung open again for Thérèse Martin’s coffin. Just as they did twenty-six years before, her three biological sisters stood inside the threshold as Thérèse came past. Only this time, instead of one priest and a handful of mourners outside, there were two hundred priests and fifty thousand faithful who had escorted the coffin from the cemetery. When the coffin was lifted from the grave, the scent of roses filled the air. As the solemn procession from the cemetery to Carmel passed by him, a paralyzed soldier regained the use of his legs. At the gate to Carmel, a blind girl regained her sight.
On May 17, 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death and thirty-eight years after code-pinking gentle old Pope Leo, Thérèse Martin returned to the Vatican. Over two hundred thousand people from all over the world jammed St. Peter’s and the square outside as Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse of Lisieux. The bells in every church in Rome pealed. She is officially known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus because that was her name inside Carmel. But Thérèse Martin is known everywhere as Thérèse of Lisieux.
So the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture at my grandmother’s house was not so old-fashioned after all. St. Thérèse was only eight years older than my grandmother. My grandmother was six when Thérèse met the Pope and told him to change his answer.
Most of what I know about St. Thérèse’s life comes from this thirty-four-page summary of her life by Msgr. Vernon Johnson, an Englishman: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/LISIEUX.htm. In 1924, Johnson was a pious, highly regarded Anglican pastor, very happy in his faith and ministry. He had already looked into Story of a Soul and knew it to be a “sentimental,” “artificial,” and “un-English” “Roman Catholic scheme.” Even when he finally picked up the book to read it, the first two chapters “did not appeal” to him and were “difficult to get through.”
St. Thérèse apparently did not view all that as much of an obstacle. Johnson kept reading till “long after midnight. . . . All I can say is that it moved my whole being as no other piece of writing has ever done,” he wrote. Johnson entered Catholic seminary at age forty-three, and Thérèse had her greatest English-language champion. The quotes above come from the first few pages of Msgr. Johnson’s classic work of apologetics, One Lord, One Faith (Ignatius Press).
The positive comments on this blog have been astonishing since I began posting just six weeks ago. Few comments have touched me more than one from “Mary” this afternoon. In Catholic-land, “Mary” is almost as anonymous as “Anonymous,” so I have no idea who Mary is. But she picked up on my post about Julian’s baptism and urged me on. You can find Mary’s comment beneath Julian’s story. It’s her P.S. that sparks this post:
When days arrive, as they will, that you need a break, be sure, we will understand. Just ask us to lift you up, throw out a topic and we’ll all help.
Mary, I’m taking you up on your offer . . . NOW! There’s not a moment to waste. So let’s turn this post into a survey, and let anyone and everyone answer with comments.
In my previous post, I wrote about W. H. Auden’s poem “The Ballad of Barnaby,” explaining how it inspired me. Auden was a High Anglican, with a clear devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the idea of Barnaby tumbling before a statue of Mary is touching to me, for reasons I try to explain.
Now, over to you, gentle reader. Mary, here’s my topic: What poem has inspired you in your religious life? It doesn’t have to be a “Catholic” poem. For example, you could cite:
Anything by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, about whom I wrote in a previous post, or . . .
John Milton, “On His Blindness“—In just fourteen lines this sonnet moves Job-like from suffering over life’s injustice to a resplendent acceptance of God’s will. The final line is a rebuke to each of us who would win God’s favor with doing, doing, and more doing: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road“—As the first American poet celebrated by the gay community, Whitman is not exactly a Catholic icon. But this poem was an anthem for me for many years, especially in its final evocation of friendship, something I’ve found most truly only now within the Catholic Church: “Mon enfant, I give you my hand! I give you my love, more precious than money! I give you myself, before preaching or law! Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
Dylan Thomas, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London“—I have no idea what Thomas’s religious orientation was, if any. He seems to have known more about spirits than about the Holy Spirit. But the final line of this elegy for a girl killed by fire, though ambiguous, has always made me think of the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “After the first death, there is no other.”
Robert Frost, “Death of a Hired Man“—Again, this is not a Catholic or even a particularly Christian poem, but the charity expressed by the wife, “Mary” of course, is touching. When her husband, Warren, gives forth with the line for which the poem is best known (“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”), Mary responds (“I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”)
e. e. cummings, “my father moved through dooms of love“—As anyone who has been reading this blog knows by now, my father moved through dooms of love. (or as cummings has it, “because my father lived his soul, love is the whole and more than all”)
. . . or just about anything by Emily Dickinson.
So, what’s your answer, brothers and sisters? Is there a poem of faith, hope, or charity that still sings to you? Please comment below. If I get some answers, I’ll have more questions!
At Adoration this afternoon, I thought for the first time in a long while of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Ballad of Barnaby.” Maybe that was because I often spend time at Adoration wondering just what I’m supposed to do down here anyway. Like “Barnaby,” our Adoration Chapel is set in “the crypt.”
This poem has haunted my adult life, and I think I know why. For 25 years, I was a performer in a world-famous stage magic troupe based at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, just two blocks from my new home, St. Mary Star of the Sea. And all the while something deep inside me was fixin’ to go Catholic.
With Katie and our daughters, Martha and Marian, I was a performer in Marco the Magi’s production of “Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company,” a “wonder-making spectacle performed in the style and tradition of the sunrise of the century.” Since the show started in 1977, the publicity materials have always referred to the sunrise of the twentieth century, although time does march on. The show was the brainchild of Cesareo Pelaez (a/k/a Marco the Magi), the archangel who first taught me about Catholicism. I don’t use the term archangel loosely. Cesareo’s middle name is Raphael.
This show was (and is) very successful—seven performances at the White House, major articles in Time and Smithsonian, and more awards from the international magic fraternity than you can shake a wand at. “Le Grand David” continues to this day, after 2,500 performances. But the inner story of “Le Grand David” is, to me, even more remarkable. A student in the 1960s of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Cesareo conceived our theatre enterprise as a communal adventure of the spirit, in which we would create something beautiful on stage that would simultaneously give praise to God—however each of us might view Him (or Her). Ours was a nonsectarian, ecumenical adventure, wherein the performance was a form of (borrowing a Christian term now) worship. Though we never, ever used that term.
And so “Barnaby.” I thought for many years of memorizing this poem and reciting it at one of the many holiday or birthday celebrations Cesareo was always organizing. The time for this seems to have passed now, as I left active involvement in the company in 2002.
But now I view “Barnaby” differently. As David B. Hart explains in a First Things review (October 2009) of “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright:
If a truly disruptive event occurs within human affairs—a new form of thought, for instance, coming from above or below or beyond the normal course of social causality—it will of necessity determine the shape not only of the future but of the past; for, if it has any large effect on history, it becomes the filter that discriminates between those prior developments that will be preserved and those prior developments that will come to nothing.
My conversion to Catholicism was such a “disruptive event” in my own affairs, one that causes me to look back on “The Ballad of Barnaby” as another reason YIM Catholic. Here is Auden’s poem in its entirety. It is entirely new to me today:
Listen, good people, and you shall hear / A story of old that will gladden your ear, / The Tale of Barnaby, who was, they say, / The finest tumbler of his day.
In every town great crowds he drew, / And all men marveled to see him do / The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, / The Vault of Metz, and the Vault of Lorraine.
His eyes were blue, his figure was trim, / He liked the girls and the girls liked him; / For years he lived a life of vice, / Drinking in taverns and throwing the dice.
It happened one day he was riding along / Between two cities, whistling a song, / When he saw what then was quite common to see, / Two ravens perched on a gallows-tree.
“Barnaby,” the first raven began, / “Will one day be as this hanging man.” / “Yes,” said the other, “and we know well / That when that day comes he will go to Hell.”
Then Barnaby’s conscience smote him sore; / He repented of all he had done heretofore: / “Woe is me! I will forsake / This wicked world and penance make.”
The evening air was grave and still / When he came to a monastery built on a hill: / As its bells the Angelus did begin, / He knocked at the door and they let him in.
The monks in that place were men of parts, / Learned in the sciences and the arts: / The Abbot could logically define / The place of all creatures in the Scheme Divine.
Brother Maurice then wrote down all that he said / In a flowing script that it might be read, / And Brother Alexander adorned the book / With pictures that gave it a beautiful look.
There were brothers there who could compose / Latin Sequences in verse and prose, / And a brother from Picardy, too, who sung / The praise of Our Lady in the vulgar tongue.
Now Barnaby had never learned to read, / Nor Paternoster know nor Creed: / Watching them all at work and prayer, / Barnaby’s heart began to despair.
Down to the crypt at massing-time / He crept like a man intent on crime: / In a niche there above the altar stood / A statue of Our Lady carved in wood.
“Blessed Virgin,” he cried, “enthroned on high, / Ignorant as a beast am I: / Tumbling is all I have learnt to do; / Mother-of-God, let me tumble for You.”
Straightway he stripped off his jerkin, / And his tumbling acts he did begin: / So eager was he to do Her honour / That he vaulted higher than ever before.
The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, / The vault of Metz and the Vault of Lorraine, / He did them all till he sank to the ground, / His body asweat and his head in a swound.
Unmarked by him, Our Lady now / Steps down from her niche and wipes his brow. / “Thank you, Barnaby,” She said and smiled; / “Well have you tumbled for me, my child.”
From then on at the Office-Hours / Barnaby went to pay her his devoirs. / One brother thought to himself: “Now where / Does Barnaby go at our times of prayer?”
And so next day when Barnaby slipped / Away he followed him down to the crypt. / When he saw how he honoured the Mother-of-God, / This brother thought: “This is very odd.
“It may be well: I believe it is, / But the Abbot, surely, should know of this.” / To the Abbot he went with reverent mien / And told him exactly what he had seen.
The Abbot said to him: “Say no word / To the others of what you have seen and heard. / I will come tomorrow and watch with you / Before I decide what I ought to do.”
Next day behind a pillar they hid, / And the Abbot marked all that Barnaby did. / Watching him leap and vault and tumble, / He thought, “This man is holy and humble.”
“Lady,” cried Barnaby, “I beg of Thee / To intercede with Thy Son for me!,” / Gave one more leap, then down he dropped, / And lay dead still, for his heart had stopped.
Then grinning demons, black as coal, / Swarmed out of Hell to seize his soul: / “In vain shall be his pious fuss, / For every tumbler belongs to us.”
But Our Lady and Her angels held them at bay, / With shining swords they drove them away, / And Barnaby’s soul they bore aloft, / Singing with voices sweet and soft.
I nearly busted a gut helping Father Barnes lug St. Michael the Archangel back and forth from the sacristy so that the great heavenly warrior could preside from the top step of the high altar at mass this morning. I always thought angels were light, airy beings, but this guy’s enormous—10 stone if he’s a pound.
It got me thinking, on this Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, about just how real angels are for me. As I wrote in my very first post, I came to the Catholic Church understanding very little about it. I was drawn almost entirely by the saints, their example, and the thought, If it was right for them, how did I get to be so smart that I have a better idea? That and early grounding in the Christian faith at the side of my parents were the decisive influences in my formation.
But I didn’t understand the Eucharist. I didn’t “get” Mary. And I’m not sure I believed in angels. I’m still not sure I believe in angels, especially now that I know Michael’s a heavy son of a gun.
Yet Father Barnes’s homily this morning spoke to me, and like all of his homilies, it took off from the scripture readings, which today were about angels, of course. Our beloved pastor noted that this is a particularly beautiful time of the liturgical year as we move toward All Saints and All Souls, a period that reminds us that “heaven is closer to us than we think.” Think of the joyous feasts and memorials just ahead: Thérèse of Liseux, who promised she would drop flowers from heaven after her death; The Guardian Angels; St. Jerome, who translated the Bible, bringing the Word from heaven to earth; the mystics Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila; Our Lady of the Rosary . . .
If angels don’t exist, then something else pretty extraordinary is managing the ladder from heaven to earth. “We only see a portion of reality,” Father Barnes said, and this I do believe. Freud said the same thing, of course, when he wrote of the unconscious. I always wondered about Freud: just where are the id, the ego, and the superego located?
I don’t have to wonder where Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are located. They are in heaven, in which I do believe. And if they are only symbolic, as Freud’s Latin “organs” certainly are, then I’ll take the archangels any day—as far more positive, inspiring, and, yes, substantial. I learned that this morning.
Why am I Catholic? As my litany of posts attests, I am Catholic because of saints, my father and mother, my pastor, books, movies, other Catholics . . . But until I attended a baptism on Sunday, I never asked why in a different way. I never asked what I am Catholic for.
Look at it this way: My blog has explained that I am a Catholic thanks to many blessed influences in my life—from Ammie to Cesareo, from Reverend Bassage to Father Barnes, from Thomas More to Thérèse of Lisieux, from Kristin Lavransdatter to “Joan of Arcadia.” But who will say the same of me someday? Who will say, I am Catholic thanks to Webster Bull?
Isak Dinesen asked a similar question at the end of her memoir Out of Africa: “I sing a song of Africa, but does Africa sing a song of me?” Maybe it’s an old person’s question.
Julian DesRosiers is the first child of young friends of mine, Adam and Jenn DesRosiers. Fellow parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, Jenn is a convert, Adam a revert; both are steady, kind, and devoted to our parish. Both are artists. Jenn is often a fellow communicant with me at daily mass. Adam has taken the pictures for our parish newsletter and many that appear on this site. I don’t hang out with them much (they’re nearly 30 years younger than I), but I love them, the way I love Ferde, the way I love Frank and Carrie. So when they invited me to Julian’s baptism, I said, of course, yes.
The ongoing shock of my conversion to Catholicism, like the ongoing astonishment of writing this blog and receiving so many readers’ comments, is realizing how inspiring one Catholic can be for others—in the case of this blog, me for you. I know how that sounds. It sounds strange to me too. Self-absorbed? Flattered by my own sense of self-importance? Yes, maybe, but— From the moment I began attending daily mass and sitting in the same pew every day, I saw by stages just how persuasive my presence could be there. By joyfully participating in the mass even when I could not receive the Eucharist, I saw that I was an example, a witness, an inspiration to other people.
This was in no way a recognition of my own power or importance. It came to me instead with a sense of grace, which humbled me. It was a gift I was being given, to use well.
But not until Julian’s baptism did I see the connection to the central question of this blog. Why—wherefore—am I Catholic? Not because of what but for what? In witnessing Julian’s baptism, I felt suddenly the responsibility of being not just a Catholic, but a good one, not just a man but a saint.
Maybe the central image in the gospel reading for Sunday helped drive this home:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
I’m afraid this gospel was aimed squarely at the priesthood during the abuse scandal of recent years. But what about me, a lay Catholic, professing the Catholic faith in front of Julian and all the other children who pass me in my daily life, including but not limited to the fourth-graders in my Wednesday afternoon CCD class? Will my behavior cause them to sin, or will it help them constantly to renew the cleansing grace of their baptism?
I am preparing for CCD class with a bit more intensity this week than last. I will stand in front of those sixteen nine-year-olds with a renewed sense of responsibility.
And to you, Julian DesRosiers, all of two weeks old, I have this to say: I will do my best to be a good example for you as you grow into the Catholic faith beside your fine parents. Your baptism was an invitation to me to renew my own faith, taking another baby step toward my destiny.