YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 5

Posted by Webster  
Here is where G. K. Chesterton sank his teeth into me. By the end of chapter 5 of Orthodoxy, I was thinking about two people for whom I have the highest regard, the highest love imaginable. In my personal reading, this chapter describes as well as anything could my father, David Bull, and my wife, the former Katie McNiff. I’ll do my best to explain.

Chapter 5, “The Flag of the World”
The chapter’s title is also its central metaphor. In his effort to explain why Christianity is the only philosophy and way of life that ultimately makes sense, Chesterton plants “The Flag of the World” in front of us readers, as the symbol of an essential loyalty to life. Neither the optimist nor the pessimist gets it or has it. By his very nature, “a man belongs to this world,” and therefore the only reasonable response is loyalty. Nothing matters but this fundamental loyalty to life. This loyalty is like patriotism of a particular kind; it is unarguable, unshakable, unassailable, ultimately indefensible.

The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

My dad had a fundamental loyalty to life and a belief in things outside himself—his parents, his older brother Webster, my mother, his children, his country, and his company—until his company effectively betrayed him and he walked away with his head held high. This loyalty is what allowed him to serve with honor in World War II. Katie has this kind of loyalty—to the memory of her parents, to her siblings, to her friends, to her daughters, and God help me, to myself. It’s one of the things that keeps us married after 25 years.

Dad was, Katie is a fundamentally, profoundly religious person—in ways that, for each of them, go beyond rote observance, routine devotion. Dad and Katie never met before the day Katie and I were married; yet by the time he died last year, they were devoted to one another, in part, I suppose, because of their shared loyalty to me.

Did/does this shared loyalty mean that either was/is incapable of criticizing me? Oh ho—on the contrary! Dad was very assertive about setting me straight when I was a naughty boy; Katie has taken over the role today. For as Chesterton notes:

The same women who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin are (in their personal intercourse with the man) almost morbidly lucid about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head. A man’s friend likes him but leaves him as he is; his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else.

As Chesterton didn’t live long enough to write—LOL.

Admittedly, there are finer points and later ones in this chapter, including the telling moment near the end when Chesterton recognizes Christianity as “the spike of dogma that fitted exactly into the hole in the world.” However, I will leave these matters for others to discuss. Right now, I have dishes to do and—what?—what’s that, Honey?—OK, Dear, I’m coming . . .

Thoughts on the LOTH for Today

Posted by Frank

Yesterday (12/16/2009) the Short Reading was as follows:

The maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel. On curds and honey will he feed until he knows how to refuse evil and choose good. (Isaiah 7:14-15)

“Until he knows how to refuse evil and choose good” gives a resounding answer of Yes to the question of whether Jesus Christ was truly human and truly God.

And from the Office of Readings today, Pope Saint Leo the Great’s letter entitled The Mystery of our Reconciliation to God expounds on that with a discussion of Our Lord’s genealogical roots as The New Adam:
To speak of our Lord, the son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.

Matthew’s gospel begins by setting out “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham”, and then traces his human descent by bringing his ancestral line down to his mother’s husband, Joseph. On the other hand, Luke traces his parentage backward step by step to the actual father of mankind, to show that both the first and the last Adam share the same nature.

No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified men by appearing to them in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types, signs that mysteriously foretold the coming of one who would take a true human nature from the stock of the patriarchs who had gone before him.

No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity. The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon the Virgin nor had the power of the Most High overshadowed her, so that within her spotless womb Wisdom might build itself a house and the Word become flesh. The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be brought forth in their midst.

For unless the new man, by being made “in the likeness of sinful flesh”, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan.

The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition. But through this wonderful blending the mystery of new birth shone upon us, so that through the same Spirit by whom Christ was conceived and brought forth we too might be born again in a spiritual birth; and in consequence the evangelist declares the faithful to have been “born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

A New Adam born of the New Eve so that each of us may be reborn. Thanks be to God.

YIM Catholic Book Club – Meeting Reminder

Tonight we will be reading and discussing the fifth chapter of G. K. Chesterton’s short book, Orthodoxy. The chapter is titled “The Flag of the World.” What a great title! What a great chapter! Has everyone done their homework? I thought not.

The following are members in good standing of the YIMCBC: Mary P., Kneeling Catholic, EPG, Goodalice19, Mujerlatina, Mike, Regina, Mary R., Pennyyak, Turgonian, Frank, and Webster. Leave us a comment and you, too, can be a member.

Thanks to Ferde, Once Again

Posted by Webster 
“Have you ever taught CCD?” I asked Ferde one day, before teaching my own first class. “Yes,” he said, “once. It did not go well.” Today marked the return of my dear friend to religious education, and it went very well indeed. Explaining the Real Presence to fourteen fourth-graders, “Mr. Rombola” had them eating out of his hand. Look at those boys listening to him. You would have thought he was reading Harry Potter or Treasure Island, not John 6.

After preparing the class for confession two weeks ago and taking them to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation last week, I guess I thought, What’s the next highest hurdle? All I could think of was, Adoration. Take the kids to Eucharistic Adoration. Which we have in our lower church twelve hours a day, five days a week. 

Ferde is a regular at Adoration, as am I. But while I think I get the doctrine of the Real Presence, I know Ferde gets it. The night of my first communion, as I stood nervously waiting in my long red robe, he walked by me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Just remember, Webster. It is the body and the blood of Christ.” Ferde, the retired actor, can say things in a way you’ll never forget.

And so I got the idea of inviting Ferde to help me teach my class today. The goal was to take the children to the Adoration chapel for the last ten minutes of the hour—but first to prepare them by teaching them about the Eucharist. I began by listing several points on which Catholics differ from Protestants—Pope, saints, all-male priesthood . . . ending with the Eucharist. Then I turned the class over to Mr. Rombola and held my breath.

I had that warning echoing in my ears: “It did not go well.” Turns out, though, that Ferde’s one experience teaching religious ed was with a group of surly high-school students. Ferde can match anybody’s surly. I can only imagine how “not well” that class went.

But today—magic. There was not a peep for fifteen minutes as Mr. Rombola explained the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, and then traced it back to John 6, in which Christ foreshadowed (if that’s the right word) His gift of His own Body and Blood: “The one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

Then we shepherded the class, two by two, across the street to the Church. Boys removed their caps at the proper moment (small victory!) and each pair of children followed me up the center aisle of the lower church toward the altar. Then, two by two, they took their turns kneeling on both knees before the Blessed Sacrament, saying a few words to the Lord, and taking a seat in a pew to wait for the others. When all had paid their respects and the silence meter was starting to tremble, I led the kids back to the school, with Ferde “covering our six” from the rear.

When we were back in our seats in the classroom, I asked if anyone had any impressions. A., our high-IQ Big-Bang theorist, had the only comment, but it was a great one. She said: “I feel like I did last week after confession: all fresh!”

I felt the same way.

Thanks to Sam Elliot . . . Not

Posted by Webster
Ordinarily I bow to any article that gets top-headline treatment at New Advent’s daily Catholic news summary. (Full disclosure: NA has been supportive of this blog, thank you.) But today’s headline was—what?—over the top? “Actor Blames Catholic Church for lack of Golden Compass sequels.” Poor Sam Elliot! Could it be Sam’s out of work and has reached for the nearest, oldest scapegoat on earth?

Sam, wake up! You didn’t even have that big a role!

And Sam, now that you’re awake, check out the facts! The problem was not with the publicity, generated not only by the Catholic Church but by lukewarm reviews, like this one or this one or this one. The problem was mismanagement, as reported by Wiki:

The project was announced in February 2002, following the success of recent adaptations of other fantasy epics, but troubles over the script and the selection of a director caused significant delays. At US $180 million, it was one of New Line Cinema’s most expensive projects ever, and its middling success in the US contributed to New Line’s February 2008 restructuring.

One more thing, Sam: As you note, some Catholics took umbrage at author Phillip Pullman’s use of the term magisterium to mean an evil bureaucracy. Fine. Big deal. Personal witness of a Catholic coming at you now, Sam—

Before either of them was ten years old, I read the entire Dark Materials trilogy aloud to each of my daughters (Golden Compass being the first book in the trilogy). I subsequently became a Catholic, and this coming Easter one of my daughters is becoming a Catholic. Conclusion? Didn’t do us any harm. I still admire Pullman’s work. The problem with the movie? It wasn’t a good movie. Read the reviews. It basically sank New Line. Read the annual report.

In its evocation of parallel universes, The Golden Compass (with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) does what all good fantasy does, opening the mind of adult and child to alternative ways of seeing creation. That opens the door for faith, as I see it. That’s Catholic enough for me.

Thanks to Thomas à Kempis I

Posted by Webster
Jesus asks us to become like little children; he doesn’t ask us to be childish. I imagine it’s easy for a convert like myself to fall into temptation when the first rush of conversion is passed, when childhood ends, and the long journey of being and becoming an adult Catholic is underway. That’s where I find myself now. And sometimes I’m pretty childish.

Having rediscovered, thanks to Frank’s recent post, The Imitation of Christ, which I first read after the death of Pope John Paul I, I am dipping back into a bit each morning. Wow—it is every bit as cleansing as it was in 1978. Whatever is going on in my life, author Thomas à Kempis (left) has a way of cutting through the thicket of trivial, daily, self-centered concerns and getting at the treasure in the heart of the garden.

I picked it up again where my bookmark told me I had left off, and this morning I came to “Of the Lack of Solace and Comfort.”

It is no great thing to despise the comfort of man when the comfort of God is present. . . .

In other words, I thought, when, in the springtime of conversion, things are going great with God, who needs friends? Who needs life to cooperate?

. . . But it is a great thing, and indeed a very great thing, that a man should be so strong in spirit as to bear the lack of both comforts, and for the love of God and for God’s honor should have a ready will to bear desolation of spirit and yet in nothing to seek himself or his own merits.

There have been times in the past few months, including some this week, when the desire to pray has run dry, when the daily hour of Adoration seems nothing more than another daily hour, when it’s all I can do to get my body to mass. If those times coincide with easy living—friends are understanding, the money is flowing, along with the wine, and the Patriots are on a roll—no problem! But couple such a dry period with friends and loved ones who seem not to get it, let those dry periods come when finances seem tightest or the weather coldest, let those periods come during a losing streak, and then, as Dad used to say, it’s Katie, bar the door!

As usual, Thomas à Kempis has an answer—not an easy answer, but an answer nonetheless:

When spiritual comfort is sent to you by God, take it humbly and give thanks meekly for it. But know for certain that it is the great goodness of God that sends it to you, and not because you deserve it. . . .

When comfort is withdrawn, do not be cast down, but humbly and patiently await the visitation of God, for He is able and powerful to give you more grace and more spiritual comfort than you first had. Such alteration of grace is no new thing and no strange thing to those who have had experience in the way of God. . . .

The Holy Spirit comes and goes after His good pleasure . . .

There is no better remedy than patience, with a complete resignation of our will to the will of God.

I think of men I admire, and I wonder how they handle(d) the dry periods: Father Barnes, living alone in a rectory big enough to house the six priests who once lived there; Father Matthew, a Trappist for as long as I’ve been alive, since 1951; my grandfather, Dan Bull, who bravely outlived two sons and two wives; my father, Dave Bull, whose diagnosis of terminal melanoma plunged him suddenly into an unaccountable world of fear, loneliness, and love—How did each of them respond when life was hardest and God seemed most distant?

They probably had their childish periods, but I like to think they had their Thomas à Kempis moments, as well.

I never yet found any religious person so perfect that he did not experience at some times the absence of grace or some diminishing of fervor. . . . He is not worthy to have the high gift of contemplation who has not suffered some tribulation for God. . . .

And therefore the Lord says: To him who overcometh I shall give to eat of the tree of life.

Because of “Such a Friend”

Posted by Webster 
When in September I wrote a post about Ferde, my big brother in the Church, one man commented: “Providential to find such a friend. I sometimes think it’s more difficult for guys who convert to find a ‘guy’ type Catholic friend.” I thought of this tonight when Ferde and I went to a monthly men’s meeting at the local Carmelite chapel.
That’s the chapel in the photo. (There’s more seating outside the frame to left and right.) With a magnifying glass you can just pick out Ferde: he’s the gray-haired fellow in the red sweater in the far right corner. The chapel is approaching its 50th anniversary in the basement of the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. Oddly located, it has a remarkable following. Katie’s mother, Ruthie McNiff, who died in 1984, was a staunch follower. It’s currently staffed by three Carmelite fathers and one or two brothers. Masses are offered three or four times daily, and once a month a ragtag group of guys meets for 90 minutes of confession, Adoration, and teaching. Tonight Father Felix spoke about the dogma of the Incarnation, and Father Herb (pictured, at the podium) followed him by putting a human face on that dogma. His basic message: anything you’ve experienced, Jesus experienced before you, and for you.
Like so many good things that have come my way as a Catholic, the Carmelite meeting came to me through Ferde. It was Ferde who introduced me to Communion and Liberation, Ferde who encouraged me to be a lector and later to serve at the altar, Ferde who invited me to the Saturday morning men’s group that meets in our church basement and is now a cornerstone of my week. Ferde even contributes articles to our parish newsletter, of which I am the sometime editor. But this men’s meeting, once a month in the basement of the mall, is something else altogether.
Tonight there were over thirty men present, plus Fathers Felix and Herb. (Father Mario is on the West Coast, visiting family for Christmas.) We are a mixed bunch, with far more faith than education—although I think some of the guys here have forgotten more Scripture and theology than I’ll ever learn. The surprises never end.
“Mark” led off the meeting with a halting, arhythmic reading of the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God!”:
Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
The kingdom tarries long.
Bring in the day of brotherhood
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task;
Rise up and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod.
As brothers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O men of God!

Dressed in a Carhart jacket over a hoodie, jeans, and work boots, Mark seemed almost embarrassed by his reading. But after the meeting I would learn that Mark is a spiritual pilgrim. He told us about a trip he is planning in January, visiting five Catholic shrines in Mexico. He plans to wake up at 4:30 each morning for 90 minutes of prayer before continuing on his pilgrimage.
Another continuing surprise is “Rick,” the 40-year-old man who organized this monthly meeting in the first place. In a previous encounter, he told me he is a member of Opus Dei, from which I drew a certain mental image of Rick. Tonight, after the meeting, I had to redraw the picture. He told me that he was recently in residence at the same Cistercian abbey where I went on retreat a month ago. He was not there as a retreatant, however, but as a matter of discernment: Rick explored, then decided against, a vocation as a Cistercian monk. This, frankly, floored me.
When I was a boy, I saw my father as a lone wolf. He seemed to have few male friends; he went off to work in the morning, came home to our family at night, was not a socializer, and interacted with other males on weekends only as a matter of form. But as my father got older, and then when he retired, his men friends became ever more important to him. Some died before him; some attended his funeral. I thought of my father, and understood his experience better, tonight, at the Carmelite men’s meeting. I know now why his men friends were so important to him.

For All the Saints: Blessed Mary Frances Schervier

Posted by Webster
Sometimes you read about a saint for the first time and you think, I want to know everything I can about him. Or her. That’s how I feel about Blessed Mary Frances Shervier, whom we remember December 15. OK, she is not a fully accredited “saint” yet, but so what? Her canonization is “pending.” Meanwhile, let me tell you what I have learned about Blessed Mary Frances Schervier. . . .

Born in Aachen, Germany in 1819 (imagine growing up in the shadows of Aachen Cathedral, left), Mary Frances was the goddaughter of an Emperor (Francis I of Austria). Her mother and two sisters died of tuberculosis when she was sixteen. So what did she do? Took over the household of her father, the wealthy owner of a needle factory. (Who gets wealthy owning needle factories anymore? That’s worthy of notice.)

In 1844, at the age of 25, she became a secular Franciscan. The following year, she and four friends founded an order dedicated to caring for the poor, Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. Twelve years later, she inspired a male friend to found the Brothers of the Poor. Six years further on, we find Blessed Mary Frances on the battlefields of America’s Civil War ministering to wounded soldiers.

Frankly, this is where she gets me. What was she doing on this side of the Atlantic taking care of our heroes? If you served those brave soldiers—as Blessed Mary Frances did, as Walt Whitman did—you have my vote.

In 1868, Mother Frances wrote to all her sisters, reminding them of Jesus’s words: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:14,17)

She continued: “If we do this faithfully and zealously, we will experience the truth of the words of our father St. Francis who says that love lightens all difficulties and sweetens all bitterness. We will likewise partake of the blessing which St. Francis promised to all his children, both present and future, after having admonished them to love one another even as he had loved them and continues to love them.”

The Catholic Church offers us a wealth of saints and blesseds to venerate. Today, let’s all say a prayer for Blessed Mary Frances Schervier and ask her to pray for us. You can read about the order Blessed Mary Frances founded right here.

Thanks to Pope John Paul I

Posted by Webster 
I know what was going on in my life in September and October 1978. I won’t bore you with the details. Something big was happening—in my life, and, as it happens, in the life of the Catholic Church. On September 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found sitting up in bed, dead, 33 days into his papacy. According to the media reports, he had an open copy of The Imitation of Christ on his chest.

I thought about this early today when I read Frank’s post bridging Pascal’s Pensées and The Imitation of Christ. (Can’t wait for part 5 of his story.)

Most Catholics will think, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to the papacy of Pope John Paul II, arguably the greatest pope of modern times (though I will happily cast a vote for “my pope”). I think instead, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to my reading The Imitation of Christ. When I saw the TV report of JPI’s death the following day, I literally dashed out and bought a copy of The Imitation—me, the lapsed Episcopalian—and while watching for the puff of white smoke on TV, I read long and deep in the Doubleday edition (1976), based on the Richard Whitford translation made circa 1530.

What was it about the death of JPI that moved me to buy this book? What was it about this book that moved me to think about Catholic Christianity in a new way? Why do I still have that copy of The Imitation, bought on September 29 or 30, 1978, while the world was waiting—again—for the white smoke and the words Habemus Papam? 

It’s all a mystery to me. Rather than try to solve it and make this post longer than it needs to be, I’ll share a few excerpts from my heavily underlined edition of The Imitation of Christ.

1. All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. (I think that both Frank and Qoheleth would agree with that one.)

2. If you would learn anything and know it profitably to the health of your soul, learn to be unknown and be glad to be considered despicable and as nothing.

3. A good devout man so orders his outward business that it does not draw him to love of it; rather, he compels his business to be obedient to the will of the spirit and to the right judgment of reason.

4. It is great wisdom . . . not to be hasty in our deeds, not to trust much in our own wits, not readily to believe every tale, not to show straightway to others all that we hear or believe. . . .

And so on, for 111 numbered sections, filled with wisdom that would take lifetimes to absorb. Who was Thomas à Kempis? I’m hoping Frank will tell us in his next post in the series, “To Be Frank.”

Because I Want to Stay Plugged In

Posted by Webster
My friend who has fallen away from the Church was making light of my conversion some months back. He said, “You just wait, Webster. When they see you want to get involved in the parish, there’s no end to what you’ll be asked to do.” My friend doesn’t know me that well, I guess. Because to get involved—as many hours a day as possible—is one big reason why I am Catholic.

I thought of this Sunday morning when I had the privilege of addressing this year’s RCIA class at our church. I started out by saying they could look at RCIA in two distinctly different ways: One, they could see it like driver’s education—do the work, pass the test, get your license, and you’re good to go. Two, they could see it as the beginning of the great adventure of their lives.

I said that for me Catholicism is nothing less than my great adventure, and I explained the many ways in which I’ve explored it in my two years in the Church. I encouraged them to consider some of these, dividing my suggestions into three groups: personal growth, service, and adventure.

Personal Growth

Service—I listed some of the volunteer organizations in our parish, including the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Pax Christi, and Communion & Liberation, then suggested some forms of service that I’ve found meaningful.

Adventure—I wanted the class to know that there really are adventures to be had, from worshiping at the Cathedral in Boston, to visiting shrines near and far, to going on retreat.

I ended by telling the RCIA class about my friend Frank Gaudenzi (left). No matter how early you arrive at daily mass in our church, you are likely to find Frank there ahead of you: on his knees in the front pew, unmoving, praying silently. Frank is 85 years old, and he is there every morning. Frank has a couple of great expressions. One, delivered with a fist pump, is “Go easy.” But my favorite is Frank’s secret to keeping your faith alive. It’s simple, Frank will tell you, “You have to stay plugged in.” For Frank that means being at his post every morning.

For me “staying plugged in” is the whole sense of my life as a Catholic. It’s just not enough to go to mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation, not for me. I’m too old, I’ve made too many mistakes, I need too much help now, not to allow the Church to inform every possible minute of my day.