Because We’re All on the Same Train (Music for Mondays)

Posted by Webster 
I had the honor of serving at my second funeral this morning. As I learned in the theater, the second “performance” is always harder than opening night. The first time, you’re working on adrenaline and the Holy Spirit. The second time, it’s all on the Holy Spirit, and doesn’t he like to humble you? So there were a few minor goofs, noticed only by Father Barnes, I’m sure, and he’s too polite to say anything.

After my posts yesterday on the Second Coming, this one and this one, Father Barnes was back circling the subject in his homily, citing a Negro Spiritual called “Same Train.” The train that took our ancestors, our grandparents, our parents—that train is coming at us too.

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The communion hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” sung at the funeral by a wonderful soprano (name unknown) to the accompaniment of organmaster Fred MacArthur, is another beautiful tune, from an entirely different tradition. Recently, someone posted or sent me this clip.  It’s still pretty bleak around here (big snow in Boston over the weekend), but we can take hope from this message.

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Comments of the Week

We’ve been having fun discussing GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in the YIM Catholic Book Club. (And if you want to help choose the next book we read, click here.)

Two of the week’s best comments were attached to the post for Chesterton, Chapter 7, “The Eternal Revolution.”

EPG wrote, beginning with a quote from the Chesterton chapter:

“For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

I also loved this passage, and it reminded me of the two quotes C.S. Lewis placed at the beginning of “The Scewtape Letters.”

The first, admittedly, may not be the most popular guy to quote on a Catholic website: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Martin Luther.

The second, Webster will appreciate: “The devill, the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked.” Thomas More.

These two, and Lewis, and Chesterton, are all reminding us that the foundation of all sins, our pride, weighs us down more than any chain anyone could devise for us. The ability to laugh, without malice, keeps us light on our feet, light in our minds, and open to little flashes of joy with which we are from time to time blessed.

Which, somehow, reminds me of the apocryphal story about the great actor who was lying on his deathbed. Asked if dying was hard, he replied, yes, but not as hard as farce.

The second quote is from Warren Jewell, one of our most faithful and (to judge by his mug shot and comments) most joyous readers. Warren writes:

Let us not forget that, like a self-entertaining child, GKC loved the idea of seeing the world upside-down while on his head. The man was full of mirthful notions, and could take nothing earthbound very “seriously.” He found that he needed the supernatural to round out his smiles with the joy of serious regard for eternal salvation in Christ and religion with His Church.

Marriage is an earthly version of the only bondage that matters — life bondage to beloved here that mirrors the eternal bondage to Christ. Even Christ saw Himself as Bridegroom to His Church, His disciples. (And, I suggest, bridesmaid ladies, keeping a religious 55-gallon drum of oil available for lighting His way to His beloved. Though, I have to think that this parable incorporated Christ’s sense of humor, imagining me in a bridesmaid dress. (“Whatchuguys laughin’ at? See, I got my lamp!”)

Yet, marriage and discipleship are both two-way bonds. They are unities that take both parties coming together and assenting to unite. If I in my persistent sins turn my back on Christ, as I have done too many times, He ‘can’t get there from here’ because I chose to attempt to be out of His sight and off His path.

(I know, I know – “Is he done yet? Save some com-box space for the rest of us, fella.”)

Ah, Warren, keep the comments and laughs coming! Thanks to all for joining the YIMC caravan as we careen through the joys of being Catholic.

To Await the Second Coming — Addendum

Posted by Webster 
How often does it happen to you that you’re thinking of a spiritual topic—and within minutes or hours you hear a homily or read a book about just that topic?

This morning I wrote about the Second Coming. Tonight I was reading Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah (too long for the YIMC Book Club) when I came across a passage in which the title character is meditating on the Book of Revelation:

Whether or not the revelation of John describes a period stretched out over three and a half years or twenty-five years, a century, or a millennium is as yet uncertain and remains the subject of debate among biblical scholars. Jesus Himself reminds us that no man knows the hour or the day of the return of the Son of Man. It would not be good for us to know. . . .

Because it is materialized in symbols, the prophecy takes on its own life within the imagination of the believer of any era. It is not merely stored away as one more news item, one more piece of religious information, one more scenario—that would be especially unfruitful for modern man, who suffers massive oversaturation of theory, knowledge, and scenarios. Instead, the revelation takes a form that is a loud shout in a world growing deaf. The authority of its horrific imagery guarantees an absolute claim on the imagination. We are intrigued, puzzled, frustrated, alarmed, and ultimately encouraged. In short, we are aroused to a kind of attention before the mystery of human history as it unfolds, precisely because we do not know when or how the ultimate danger is to be incarnated. With prayerful reading, the book assists in the conversion of attention into holy vigilance, the spirit of the watchman.

I really like this because it says what I was trying to say in the Second Coming post, but says it better. Thinking about the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, the Return of the Son of Man can have tremendously beneficial effects. In a world growing deaf, it arouses our attention. It heightens our vigilance. It creates in us the spirit of the watchman.

I can’t imagine a truly religious life without these faculties, these qualities, these graces.

YIMC Book Club — What’s Next?

We have two chapters left in Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton, and Webster will post on these each of the next two Thursday evenings. Which means that by Thursday, January 14, we should know what book we’re reading next!

We’d like your suggestions. What would you like to read and discuss together? There are a few considerations:

  1. The book should be relatively short, like Orthodoxy, so that it doesn’t take forever to read.
  2. It should be something that can be read in bite-size installments, say, 15-20 pages at a time. I know some are voracious readers and could do a book a week, but we want to encourage participation.
  3. It should be something that is not hard to get, either on line or in cheap paperback. (AbeBooks and other used-book sites are great sources for paperbacks, even hardcovers, under $5.)
  4. If the book was written in a foreign language, the suggestion should include the name of the English translator.

Can’t think of any other issues right now . . . What do you think we should read together?

Because of Practical Instruction Like This

Posted by Frank
Yesterday, Webster posted this note about the close friendship of Saints Basil and Gregory. Back in the middle of December 2009, Webster penned this note with the title Because of “Such a Friend” where the subject of male friendships surfaced as a topic for discussion. I bring this up because I posted the following comment to that discussion:

They (the Disciples) junked the “think only of myself” model and exchanged it for the “two greatest commandments” model. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Say this to yourself as a mantra and I guarantee your decision making matrix will change.

From the Office of Readings in the LOTH this morning, I was surprised to see St. Augustine flesh out what I had thought was an original idea (Qoheleth is laughing now) over 1600 years before I could possibly have even thought it! Relieved, then, is probably a more accurate description of how I felt. In one of his tractates (lectures) on the Gospel of John he writes:

The Lord himself came, the Teacher of love, full of love, “shortening the word upon the earth”, as it was foretold he would do. He showed that from the two precepts of love depend the whole of the Law and the prophets.

Yes, I remember the passage he is alluding to where Our Lord and a scholar of the law have this discussion in the Gospel of Matthew (22:36-40). Augustine continues on as follows,

What are these two commandments? Join me, my brethren, in recollecting them. They ought to be thoroughly familiar to you and not just come to your mind when we recite them: they ought never to be blotted out from your hearts. Always and everywhere, bear in mind that you must love God and your neighbor, “love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.”

We must always ponder these words, meditate them, hold them in our minds, practice them, and bring them to fruition.

Which is what I suggested in my comment above. A take on the exhortation of the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing” from his letter to the Thessalonians. He continues,

As far as teaching is concerned, the love of God comes first; but as far as doing is concerned, the love of your neighbor comes first.

Yes! As James “the slave of Christ” exhorts in his letter, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” (James 1:22)

Whoever sets out to teach you these two commandments of love must not commend your neighbor to you first and then God, but God first and then your neighbor.

Put first things first!

You, on the other hand, do not yet see God, but loving your neighbor will bring you that sight. By loving your neighbor, you purify your eyes so that they are ready to see God as John clearly says: “If you do not love your brother, whom you see, how can you love God, whom you don’t see?”

I have much work to do on this front, believe me! Who doesn’t? But again I am grateful for the Communion of the Saints and the practical, day-to-day examples and simple instruction they give me to living a Christian life in this world.

P.S. St. Augustine wrote 124 lectures on the 21 chapters Gospel of John. You can find them here.

To Await the Second Coming

Posted by Webster 
When I was a child, I worried about the day the sun burns out. When I was a teen, my worry was population explosion and in my 20s nuclear war. Now I think about the Second Coming. I don’t worry about it.

Skeptic alert: I do not have the date circled in red on my calendar. Not for 2010, anyway. Hear me out.

Today in the Catholic Church (at least in our diocese) we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. (Some celebrate it January 6.) When I was 18 and a smart-aleck, I thought an epiphany was something in a story by James Joyce. Now that I’m a Catholic, I recognize it as the appearance of the Lord to the gentiles in the form of the Three Kings, the Magi.

I thought of the Second Coming this morning in connection with the reading from Isaiah:

Rise up in splendor, O Jerusalem! 
   Your light has come, 
   the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
   and thick clouds cover the peoples; 
But upon you the Lord shines,
   and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light, 
   and kings by your shining radiance.

I thought to myself: What must it have been like to live in the time of Isaiah, awaiting the coming of “the glory of the Lord”? My next thought was: This is the time of Isaiah. Or we need to live as though it were. This, dear skeptics, is what I think we can all consider—living as if the Second Coming really is coming, and soon. It changes everything.

Father Barnes’s beautiful homily for Epiphany confirmed this line of thought, as it often does. He has a way of answering a question I didn’t even know I was asking. He said that in the story of the Three Kings, today’s Gospel reading, we can learn many things about our lives as Christians, or skeptics. In particular, he said, we can learn three things.

  1. To look outside ourselves, and upwards, for the truth. The Magi did this. They followed the star. Today, we talk too much of following our muse, our gleam, our bliss—inside us. 
  2. To ask for directions when we lose sight of the star. I never heard this clearly: The Magi stopped off in Jerusalem to ask exactly where the King of the Jews was being born. Father noted that we often lose sight of the star. When we do, like stopping off in Jerusalem, we should ask the Church and its teaching.
  3. To adore God. When the Magi arrived where the child was, they prostrated themselves. We can do this at Eucharistic Adoration. We can do it every moment of our lives, wherever we are.

This, I’m afraid, is where we leave the skeptics behind. No God, no Second Coming. No God, and the world ends with either a whimper or a bang.

I worried, but I never panicked over any of my end-of-the-world scenarios—because even when I wasn’t a Catholic, I always believed in God. And I thought to myself, If God exists, then the world will end when He is good and ready, and not a moment sooner.

The year I turned 50 I worried about biological warfare erasing human life. (Remember 9/11?) That was still six years before I finally considered becoming a Catholic. Now I think seriously of the Second Coming. When I ask myself what changes have happened in my life since I became a Catholic, this is close to the top of the list.

Because of the Good News XI

Posted by Webster 
In his homily for New Year’s Day, the octave day of Christmas, Father Barnes said there is so much joy in Christmas that the Church calendar cannot contain it all in a single day. I’m not sure the same could be said of the Catholic blogosphere in the past week. There was less posting than usual. Many took vacations. But here are some pickin’s from the Good News pile.

I have written many times that I am a big fan of Pat McNamara’s blog about Catholic history. But I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I am also a big fan of Ulysses S. Grant (left), without question the greatest field general in American history. (OK, Frank—If Grant wasn’t the greatest, who was?) Grant was a failure before the Civil War and a terrible failure as a President and investor after the war. But put him in charge of an army and he just plain won. So I was fascinated to read Pat McNamara’s report on Grant’s West Point roommate, Fr. George Deshon, CSP. The Catholic connection doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always suspected that Grant was a deeply spiritual man who, like Lincoln, didn’t wear his religious thoughts on his sleeve.

I am also partial to all things Minnesota, so I was particularly touched by this photo album from Margaret of Minnesota showing the progression of her pregnancy and childbirth, beginning with one of those fuzzy ultrasounds and ending with several cute mug shots.

The thing about Margaret’s pics, of course, is that they show, with smiles, the continuity of life from womb to highchair (above). You may be in tears when you read Jan Collins’s story about the evolution of her views on abortion. (Jan’s blog is “Runs With Angels.”)

After writing a piece about the Church’s position on abortion himself this week, Frank came across this story on the advances being made by pro-life forces South of the Border. Now, that’s Good News!

And if you ever worry that the Church’s position, on abortion or any other issue, is going to make you less than popular or admired in the circles you frequent, just print out this quotation from Bishop Fulton Sheen, found this week at The Deacon’s Bench.

That, or read Msgr. George Pope’s piece about the Church as a sign of contradiction.You’ll find encouraging thoughts like this one:

That the world hates us is not necessarily due to the fact that we have done anything wrong. It is often a sign that we have done something precisely right for it is often our lot, as the Body of Christ, to be a “sign of contradiction.” That is to say that we must announce the Gospel to a world that is often and in increasing measure, stridently opposed to it.

A few Good News stories this week had Boston-area angles. Boston College has sent many football players to the NFL, including Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Mark Herzlich (left) was set to be the next BC star to make the jump—until he contracted a rare, malignant bone cancer last spring. But as this story from ESPN, relayed by New Advent, reported, Herzlich’s cancer is in remission, in part through the prayers and letters of a 75-year-old Indiana nun who had never met him. It’s an inspiring story of faith.

Meanwhile, readers in my own town of Beverly and those south of Boston in Providence could bust their buttons over this list of the “Five most positive developments in 2009.” Development #1, top of the list, was “American bishops find their public voice.” And who were those bishops? In Providence, of course, we had Bishop Thomas Tobin calling Congressman Patrick Kennedy to “conversion and repentance.” But what was the Beverly connection?

From 1957 to 1965, when my Katie was a child, a charismatic and very handsome young priest was an associate pastor at our church, St. Mary Star of the Sea. In 2009, that young priest was the outgoing Bishop of South Bend, Indiana, John M. D’Arcy (left), who was the first and loudest voice in the Church calling out Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to address its graduating class. (Eventually, seventy bishops joined the still-dashing man Katie remembers as “Father D’Arcy.”)

Boston’s cardinal archbishop, Seán O’Malley, has a fine weekly blog, and the entries for the past week, dated December 31, documented the Franciscan’s service to the poor during the Christmas season.

As the member of a superb, though largely amateur choir, I am partial to talented amateur artists who use their talents to praise God. How could I not love this YouTube clip from Singapore, of a parish orchestra playing “God We Praise You”—especially when the parish is dedicated as mine is in Beverly, to Our Lady Star of the Sea? (Thanks to “Whispers in the Loggia.”)

In the Further Smiles Dept., who but Randy Beeler of The Catholic Comedy could (or would) find a meaningful connection between sauerkraut and the Virgin Mary? Then again, I compared the Blessed Mother to Olive Oyl (left)—and I have yet to receive a reprimand from the Vatican.

Of course, the best news of the past week or so was the birth of Our Lord, which we Catholics celebrate for a whole “octave” of days because, as Father Barnes said, our joy is too great for one day to contain. We celebrate this birth in so many ways, including a perpetual fascination with Nativity scenes. I have written in the past about one collector of these. But, as the Crescat demonstrated this week, even this lovely tradition can be carried too far.

I’ll close with thanks and congratulations. The thanks are to Julie Davis at Happy Catholic, who kindly cited YIM Catholic as one of her discoveries of 2009. Praise from a leading Catholic blogger is Good News to Frank and me. Thanks, Julie!

The congratulations are to Brother Stephen, O. Cist., who documented his Simple Profession in his own blog, Sub Tuum, this week. There are many other men and women religious who document their monastic experience on line, and I discover new ones every week, but after my retreat at a Trappist monastery in November, I find this faithful account of life among the Cistercians especially warm reading.

Survey #4: Because of What Music?

Posted by Webster 
Recently, I wrote a piece on Pandora Radio, a Web service that allows you to create your own personal “radio stations” tailored to your musical taste. I posted a link to “Bingen Radio” on our FaceBook Fan Page, and I invite you to check that out. Now let me pose a question: What music, liturgical or non-liturgical, inspires you as a Catholic or non-Catholic?

I’m prompted to post this question thanks to a couple of reader comments. In particular:

“James” offered some personal favorites: Nearly all Gregorian chant (“having sung in a Cathedral choir as a boy”), Henryk Gorecki’s “Misere” and his Third Symphony (“a musical response to the Holocaust”), and also the soundtrack to “Into Great Silence.” (The picture is Gorecki, not James.)

“S.” began by recommending Libera’s version of the ”Gloria,” which you can hear by clicking here. When I responded by saying that I found this Gloria especially beautiful (I’m also partial to the “Heritage” Gloria, which we sing in our choir), S. replied with a longer list—

  • Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (Coventus Choir, Hayley Westenra)
  • Rachmaninov, Vespers, op 37:1 (Choir of King’s College)
  • Corpus Christi Carol (Hayley Westenra)
  • Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, op 90, 3rd movement 
  • “Let me Lie” — “May it Be” — “River of Dreams” (Hayley Westenra)
  • “Dark Waltz,” from “Phantom of the Opera,” on YouTube with Hayley Westenra
  • “And lastly (for now!) in a different vein,” Steven Curtis Chapman’s “‘Cinderella’—written before the death of his daughter, but performed more poignantly afterwards (many YouTube versions)”

What music do you turn to for inspiration, dear reader? It’s a cold, snowy weekend in New England and I could use some inspiration. . . .

For All the Saints: Basil and Gregory

Posted by Webster 
As I head to our first men’s group of 2010, I come across today’s reading in honor of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Like many readings from the Office, I begin it half asleep and finish it fully awake. This excerpt from a sermon by St. Gregory speaks to our men’s group, in particular, and Christian friendship between men, in general.

Today’s meeting is my first as secretary, which means, in theater parlance, that I book the acts. Today’s act is Big Bill—Cursillo. We have a Little Bill, too, which is why today’s Bill is known, to me alone, as Big Bill.

This will be Patrick’s first meeting as president, and as such, he will make the coffee and wield the invisible gavel against filibustering. I hope Patrick remembers the coffee.

Our outgoing president, my big brother Ferde, will be there, tickled to be relieved of the coffee duties after three years of building the group from scratch and surviving a terrible intramural crisis eighteen months ago about whether to put cinnamon in the coffee. Ferde said yea, everyone else said nay; Ferde was president; it was messy.

Jonathan, the outgoing secretary, will be there as well. Which is always a blessing, because Jonathan and Little Bill actually know something about Catholicism, its history and culture. They are, hands down, the two most knowledgeable Catholics in the group. Sorry, Ferde, that includes you. Same with you, Big Bill.

What touches me about the saints for today, both born in the same year, 330 AD, in Asia Minor, is that we remember them as friends. I wonder if friendship in Christ between men is illustrated in the lives of Sts. Basil and Gregory more vividly than in any other two saints’ lives. I don’t have the knowledge to judge this question, but I do have today’s reading.

I read St. Gregory’s words, and they are touching:

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it. 

All of us come from the same river; some of us are “united again.” Do we acknowledge that this might be “by plan, for God so arranged it”? Who chooses our friends for us?

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper. 

The key here is the joint ambition: a life of true wisdom. Men have many ambitions. Men, more than women, are known for ambition. We think of ambition sometimes as an outward expression of testosterone. But these fourth-century saints had a particular ambition that had nothing to do with possessions or acclaim. And it bound them together. Read their short biographies and you’ll see. Basil is here and Gregory is here.

The icon at the top of this post shows Basil (left) and Gregory (right) flanking St. John Chrysostom. I like this illustration because it seems to say what the preceding paragraph says: that for two men to be joined in true friendship, there must be a third factor present, and “a life of true wisdom” as a joint ambition will do very nicely.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own. 

Testosterone breeds envy, and in two men vying for wisdom there is a great temptation to envy. I don’t think men have an edge on women in the envy department, but men or women, we can take a lesson from this: Basil and Gregory “made capital” out of their rivalry. And ended cheering for each other’s successes. The excerpt closes with these words:

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians. 

Father Barnes—no fan of filibustering and no regular at men’s group—once gave a homily about being called a Christian. He said that when the time comes for someone to say our eulogies, all we should want is to be “called Christians.” The rest of the details—what we did, who we knew, what we accomplished—are trivial. “He was a Christian” should be good enough for us. It was good enough for Sts. Basil and Gregory.

YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 7

Posted by Webster 
This is my favorite chapter in the book, partly because it highlights two things that are important to me, even if they are often opposed: levity and marriage. Let me begin with levity and end with marriage.

Chapter 7, “The Eternal Revolution”
Anyone who has ever been a stage actor, as I was in my youth and still am in both my dreams and my nightmares, knows that no truer words were ever written:  

Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. . . . It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

If you ever took part in a dreary high school production of Macbeth or The Death of a Salesman, as I did (I was Malcolm in the Shakespeare, the ironically named Happy in Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy), you know how easy it is to play “serious.” But have you ever tried reading a script by Molière or Neil Simon and making it funny? It’s the hardest thing in the world.

Now, how does Chesterton get here, and what the heck does this have to do with Orthodoxy, Christianity, or our obsession, Catholicism? Good question. I’m not entirely sure I can answer this cogently. So I’ll just offer a few bullet thoughts, then turn over the mic to commenters.

Continuing his tactic of defining a complete and perfect system of values—only to find that Christianity defined the system 2,000 years ago—Chesterton says that true progress or reform, which we all think we want, must be defined by three qualities:

1. There must be a fixed ideal for our final state of perfection, happiness, Utopia. The modern tendency is to change our ideals every five minutes.

2. The ideal state must be “composite,” a state in which things are in the right proportion and not all this or that. We do not want a painting that is all black or all white; we want a harmonious composition.

3. The ideal state can be reached and, especially, safeguarded only through watchfulness, vigilance. Here, two-thirds of the way through the chapter, Chesterton gives the most compelling explanation of original sin, the Fall, that I have ever read.

At the end of the chapter, Chesterton proposes Christian marriage as another element of his Utopia—one that he could have invented himself, except that Christianity already did so. The key Utopian principle defining marriage is, it matters, it’s for keeps. In one of his most beautiful paradoxes, Chesterton writes that marriage is the paramount example of a man, me, exercising “the liberty to bind myself.”

Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.

I think I’ll go ask Katie if she’d like to go for a walk.