Because Blake Could Paint Such A Portrait With Words

I’m sure you recognize the Divine Mercy image. Seen in a vision by Sister Faustina in 1931 she was disappointed in the original painting of what she had described.  She thought it would be impossible for any painter to depict Jesus as beautifully as she had seen him.

Long before Sister Faustina’s vision in the 20th Century, the English poet William Blake painted the following image with words instead of paint. [Read more…]

To Get Back to Basics

After a week wandering in the wilderness, I find it’s Sunday again. What a miracle! A chance to begin again! God is merciful. Sunday is an invitation to get back to first things. Because I let my life get too complicated sometimes. This business of being a Catholic is not that difficult.

Being Catholic means believing a short list of things, understanding them as facts, and living my life moment to moment as though these facts were true.

Listen.
If God exists—
If God created me and you and the laws by which our world works—
If God loves his creation so much that he sent his only Son to live among us as a real, living, breathing, loving, suffering man two thousand years ago—
If this “Jesus of Nazareth” came into contact with real people like John and Andrew, performed miracles among them and taught them how to live, and then really was crucified, died, and rose from the dead to appear among them once more—
If He, Jesus, then promised and delivered the Holy Spirit to guide his followers after his final bodily disappearance from this earth—
Well, these facts have consequences. I need to bring my life in line with them.

But how can I do so when I forget most of the time?

Most of the time I do not live my life conscious of God, the way a child in a classroom is always aware of the teacher at the front of the room—and not a nasty, critical teacher, by the way, but the wisest, kindest, most forgiving teacher you can possibly imagine.

Most of the time I act as though I created my life and control my existence, as though what I do with my life is “my business, keep your hands off.”

Most of the time I act as though Jesus were a really good dead guy, a nice thought, a word to warm my insides, a slogan to wear on a lapel pin—not a Presence in my life, as real as the Man who appeared walking beside some of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Someone I can see and talk to and learn from moment to moment. (Heck, even those disciples were oblivious to His Presence, to who he really was. And they were walking alongside the most significant figure in earthly history. And he wasn’t going to be around that long. No wonder we’re usually oblivious.)

Most of the time I cower under the fear of death instead of living my life as if Eternal Life were not just a wish or a dream but a reality.

Most of the time I forget the implications of Pentecost and of what the Apostles carried forward, the Church and its teaching. 

Most of the time this past week I have lived this way: forgetful, oblivious, self-absorbed, keep your hands off.

But it is Sunday again, the day the Lord made for us to rest from labor and to honor and especially to remember him. Sunday is his ever-returning gift, like Christmas celebrated for the children of his family once a week. God’s offers us his forgiveness, he invites us to return to his courts, where one day is worth a thousand elsewhere. We just have to remember and ask and the door will be opened. We just have to remember.

Because God is Not a Television

It’s one of those mornings when God seems to be speaking directly to me. Maybe that’s because last night was troubling, one of those times in a 25-year marriage that challenge both partners. This is no big confession. We’ve all had times like these. Father Barnes gave his usual A+ homily at Mass today, saying that we shouldn’t think of God as a television set, where we can change the channel when we don’t like the message.

No sooner had he finished his homily than a new program came on my channel: An elderly couple I have never seen before, maybe 25 years older than Katie and I, made their noisy way up the aisle behind me to the left. Father B had begun the communion rite, and here this old man and woman were talking between themselves and—what—arguing?! They plopped themselves into the pew directly in front of me.

She said something. He said, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” Apparently they were looking for some people they couldn’t find. They continued to exchange querulous words and shrugs as the rite unfolded. They did not receive communion, and neither did I. Instead, I meditated on marriage, in and outside of Church. And wondered if this was a vision of the future.

After Mass, I came across the street to my office and found Frank’s beautiful post about Sister Wendy on prayer. The message on this channel is clear too: Pray with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and God will answer. You just have to pray really hard.

Then came men’s group and, after it, a brief chat with my dear 85-year-old friend Frank G. “It’s really simple,” he said after a complex hour-long discussion of science and faith by a biochemist at Harvard Medical School. “I don’t know why people complicate things,” Frank G. continued. “God gave us the Ten Commandments, and he wants us to follow them. It’s simple.”

No need to change channels this morning. From an elderly couple to Sister Wendy to Frank G., God is giving me all the messages I can handle.

Thanks to Sister Wendy On Prayer

I’ve never really had trouble praying. When I was growing up, my mother taught me to pray. And prayer was never confined in my mind to any specific time or place. It still isn’t now. Prior to my conversion, I had heard some Catholic friends speak about the difficulty of praying. I always thought, what is so difficult about it? Just do it.

I’m still not sure what kind of problems they were having with prayer. I always thought it was pretty simple to just ask for what you need. Or to give thanks for what you have been given. I’ll be honest with you and say that I’m still warming up to the Rosary. We pray the Rosary  as a family at least one night a week now. Usually on Tuesdays. It’s good because with five of us, we each lead a decade of the prayer. Everyone is a leader.

After my conversion, I was perusing the religious book section of our public library and I came across this title in the photograph above. Sister Wendy Beckett wrote a book on prayer? Neat! My wife and I love Sister Wendy’s PBS specials on art. So I picked up this little tome and brought it home. I think it was very helpful. It is the first book that explained to me the idea that prayer can even be done silently. I don’t mean praying silently, but listening silently.  Hard to do in a house full of kids, but it is possible after they are in bed.

It is a short and very readable book and very straightforward.  It has three sections and is only 144 pages in length.  Heck, the first 31 pages are an autobiographical introduction by the writer and producer of her PBS art documentaries. So it’s really only 113 pages.  It’s good that it is short and simple because Sister Wendy prefers that you actually pray rather than just read about praying. I’m with her on this idea to. The K.I.S.S. method of prayer, you know, Keep It Simple, Silly!

Let me give you a brief taste from the first chapter,

The simplicity of prayer, its sheer, terrifying uncomplicatedness seems to be the last thing most of us either know, or want to know.  It is not difficult to intellectualize on prayer.  Like love, beauty, and motherhood, it quickly sets our eloquence aflow. It is not difficult, but it is perfectly futile. In fact, those glowing pages on prayer are worse than futile; they can be positively harmful.

Writing about prayer, reading about prayer, talking about prayer, thinking about prayer, longing for prayer and wrapping myself more and more in these great cloudy sublimities can make me feel so aware of the spiritual—anything rather than actually praying. What am I doing but erecting a screen behind which I can safely maintain my self-esteem and hide away from God?

Striking any chords here? Sister Wendy doesn’t pull any punches, does she?

Ask yourself: what do I really want when I pray? Do you want to be possessed by God? Or to put the same question more honestly, do you want to want it? Then you have it. The one point Jesus stressed and repeated and brought up again is, “Whatever you ask the Father, He will grant it to you.” His insistence on faith and perseverance are surely other ways of saying the same thing: you must really want it, it must engross you.

You see what I mean?  Sister Wendy lays it all on the line right there in the first couple of paragraphs of chapter one! To finish out this line of reasoning she writes,

Wants that are passing, faint emotional desires that you do not press with burning conviction, these are things that you do not ask “in Jesus’ name;” how could you? But what you really want, “with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” that Jesus pledges himself to see that you are granted. He is not talking only, probably not even primarily, of prayer of petition, but of prayer. When you set yourself down to pray, what do you want? If you want God to take possession of you, than you are praying. That is all prayer is.

The astonishing thing about prayer is our inability to accept that if we have need of it, as we do, then because of God’s goodness, it cannot be something that is difficult. Accept that God is good and that your relationship with Him is prayer, and you must conclude that prayer is an act of the utmost simplicity.

And that is why I say thank you to Sister Wendy.  There is much more practical advice in this charming, little book, and that is a good thing too.  Because Sister Wendy and I want you to read it quickly and then start praying, whenever you can and wherever you happen to be.

For Minor Miracles (c)

Blogging can be a lonely business, especially when it gets personal. Anyone with wit and blind endurance can blog about marital relations in pre-Constantinian Rome or post funny cat pictures (h/t Joseph Bottum). But try posting every day and long into many nights not just about Catholicism but about why Catholicism makes sense for you, and you’re going to hit some squalls.

This post is the continuation of a series about how this blog began and developed. The series began here and continued here.

Chapter 4 — The Crisis of Faith
My YIMC partner, Frank, ran into some squalls this week, as friends of this space know. I privately said to myself, Let’s see how Frank weathers this one. Result? Never prouder to call him partner. Because I know what it feels like, and it’s hard. I ran into my first squalls in mid-October and early November, storm season here in New England.

Converting to Catholicism changes a man, and like Frank, I am a recent convert. It changes the way you look at every issue and everyone, even issues and ones close to you. But try blogging about ones close to you or about issues they have strong opinions about, and doing so from your new on-fire Catholic perspective. Try telling your newly discovered truth, even in veiled terms. Try it just once, and if it is not a whitewash job (I’ve written those), I promise you’ll live to regret it.

There is a third rail in blogging: writing about your loved ones in anything but Valentines. I touched that third rail several times during storm season, and I still feel the shock. Most of the “touches” were made with what I thought was care and subtlety. I still got electrocuted.

Like Frank, I may be crazy but I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to remind anyone of the details of my own personal storm season. If you want to dedicate a couple of hours to delving in YIMC archives, you will find some pretty good indications of what I’m talking about; however, you won’t find the posts I pulled.

I call this chapter “The Crisis of Faith” because, as I imagine Frank found this week, it’s surprising to be electrocuted. You thought you were doing right, you thought you were speaking the truth, you thought the words you wrote could do some good for someone somewhere and—CRACK!—the next moment you’re lying flat on your back, looking up at the tines of a pitchfork aimed straight at your face. You ask yourself, How could I be such a faithful Catholic, in word if not in deed, and be looking up at my own destruction?!

Sometimes “I’m sorry” is not a good enough answer.

Storms came and went in my blogging life through mid-November, when I went on retreat at a Trappist monastery. I wrote that the monks made me think of soldiers. I wrote that one of the monks gave me advice that helped the squalls subside. What I haven’t written yet is how a soldier—sorry, a Marine—came along shortly afterward and completely transformed this blog and my experience of it. Until now, I haven’t written—

Chapter 5 — The Crazy Marine from the Old South Who May Be An Angel or Something

I promise to do so soon.

For now, I’ll close with a short poem, which a certain former Marine shared with me recently:

God and the Soldier, all men adore,
In time of danger and not before.
When the danger is passed and all things righted,
God is forgotten, and the Soldier slighted.

Frank calls me Maverick sometimes, a reference to Tom Cruise’s character, a pilot or “front-seater” in “Top Gun.” Which, by the way, is way more honor than a former peacenik like me deserves. When I don’t refer to him as Sir Frank, I call him Merlin, the nickname of Maverick’s back-seater in the closing scenes of the movie.

Therefore, in closing, let me say: Well, done, Merlin! Fire at will!

Because the Devil Is Real

Guest post by Allison Salerno
Have you ever felt the presence of raw evil? Just as I regularly feel to my bones the presence of God, I felt the presence of evil trailing me in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. My husband narrowly survived the attack on Tower One of the World Trade Center, escaping from his office on the 68th floor 11 minutes before the building collapsed.

He was a senior information officer in the media relations office at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency that owned the towers and runs the bridges and tunnels running from New Jersey into Manhattan as well as the region’s major airports.

When I told one neighbor in the days following that I was craving the sanctuary of Mass for an hour of peace against my feelings of sadness, anger and bewilderment, she replied. “I would think you would be happy he survived.”

What she could not understand was that surviving an attempt on one’s life when others do not is its own kind of ordeal. Greg lost 84 friends and colleagues that day, people who were no better or worse a person than he was. Because of Greg’s position as a media relations specialist, after the attacks, for almost three years, he chronicled for the media every life lost at his agency, as well as the recovery efforts. This was not only his job, but also his way to fulfill his deep sense of obligation as a survivor to give voice to those who had been killed.

So, why did Greg survive? Because God protected him? That I what I told our then five-year-old son when he asked me. “Well then why didn’t God protect the other people?” came his response. I had no answer. I know the attacks were not “of God,” but rather of God permitting us humans to have free will.

In the days following the attacks, Greg worked almost around the clock; he was gone when our sons woke up in the morning. Every night, after I had put our boys to bed, I would sit on the couch in our family room, waiting for him to return home. At 9 o’clock in the first few weeks, I would listen as fighter jets roared overhead.

A few weeks after the attacks, I sought out a priest at the church we attended, telling him I was haunted day and night by the feeling that the terrorists stole time – the time of their victims and the time of those who had survived the attacks. I didn’t understand how they could have such power.

“Take the time back,” he told me, suggesting I drive my husband into work daily to Jersey City, where he now was working at the Port Authority police headquarters.

And so I would drop our kindergartner off at the corner bus stop, bundle our not-quite-two-year-old into our sedan and drive up the New Jersey Turnpike each weekday morning to take Greg to work. This hour-long drive helped us both, stealing back moments of time we had lost.

The evil attack on humanity that happened on Sept. 11 had the potential to foster still more evil in my little family’s life. The terrorists offered us the opportunity to fall into rage or cynicism, disbelief in God, or even indifference. I could see that.

I am Catholic because the Church recognizes evil is real, even among those of us who try our best to follow Christ’s example. I am Catholic because I understand that following Christ is a day-by-day proposition.

I am Catholic because my Church recognizes we all wage a spiritual battle – every day – with the forces of evil.

I am Catholic because I believe in the seen and the unseen.

Nothing separates us “good guys” from “bad guys,” criminals, terrorists, politicians, bankers, whomever, except what we do with how we feel. We all are sinners. One of the many spiritual lessons I learned from my husband’s trauma is that just as God is not “out there” floating someplace in the cosmos, the Devil is not “out there” but can settle into our own hearts if we let him.
And there will be hell to pay if we do.
Saint Michael the Archangel,
Defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
And do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host—
By the Divine Power of God—
Cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits,

Who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Thanks to Seal Because Sometimes . . .

Crazy
In a church by the face
He talks about the people going under

Only child know…

A man decides after seventy years
That what he goes there for
Is to unlock the door
While those around him criticize and sleep


Nikos Deja Vu – Seal – CrazyFunny home videos are a click away

And through a fractal on that breaking wall
I see you my friend and touch your face again
Miracles will happen as we trip

But we’re never gonna survive unless
We get a little crazy
No we’re never gonna survive unless
We are a little

Cray cray crazy

Yellow people walking through my head
One of them’s got a gun to shoot the other one
And yet together they were friends at school

Get it, get it, get it, yeah, no!

If all were there when we first took the pill
Then maybe then maybe then maybe then maybe
Miracles will happen as we speak

But we’re never gonna survive unless
We get a little crazy
No we’re never gonna survive unless
We are a little
Crazy
No no we’ll never survive unless we get a little bit

A man decides to go along after seventy years
Oh darling

In a sky full of people only some want to fly
Isn’t that crazy?
In a world full of people only some want to fly
Isn’t that crazy?
Crazy
In a heaven of people there’s only some want to fly
Isn’t that crazy
Oh babe Oh darlin’
In a world full of people there’s only some want to fly
Isn’t that crazy?
Isn’t that crazy Isn’t that crazy Isn’t that crazy

Oh

But we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy crazy
No we’re never gonna to survive unless we are a little crazy
But we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy crazy
No we’re never gonna to survive unless we are a little crazy
No no never survive unless we get a little bit

And then you see things
The size of which you’ve never known before
They’ll break it
Someday
Only child know

Them things
The size
Of which you’ve never known before
Someday

Because We All Serve As Leaders And Followers

I was in the Marines for a long time, both on Active Duty and in the Reserves. I’ve seen all kinds of leaders, or more accurately, people thrust into leadership positions. Some of the people I reported to were exceptional. Some were horrible. What does this have to with with being a Catholic? Bear with me. [Read more…]

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity” Week 3

This week we read Book II, Chapters 3, 4, and 5 and Book III, chapter 1.

Good morning YIMC Book Club Members! If week #1 and week #2 were sleepers, this week’s readings are anything but.  Lewis starts shooting the lights out and fires off a fussilade of thoughts that left me cheering for more.  Jack, “fire for effect!”

Like last week, I’m going to let readers produce most of the ideas here.  I am going to share a few of my favorite passages though.  There was so much good stuff to choose from that frankly, this is a difficult post to write! Here are a few of my impressions of this week’s readings.

Last week ended with Lewis using an analogy that Christians are living in enemy-occupied territory. Obviously not the kind of thought that resonates with modern-day residents of the United States.  The last time US citizens lived in enemy occupied territory was in the Civil War. But these words were spoken during the Blitz. Austria had been annexed, Poland invaded, France fell, and Germany was focused on taking Britain next. The listeners to this radio program understood this message loud and clear. It makes a lot of sense to me too.

This week starts with Chapter 3 The Shocking Alternative.  Right off the bat Lewis uses an analogy that any parent can sympathize with. A mother teaches her children that it is proper to keep their rooms neat and clean.  The children know this is what they should do and yet, they make a mess of things against Mom’s will.  This sounds a lot like my childhood, not to mention sympathizing with my role as a parent! Lewis writes,

She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

What,  you haven’t given your children absolute free will? Golly, me neither. Point well taken Mr. Lewis! I read this  and thought, yeah Jack, now you are right on target.  And he makes his argument for this being the case throughout all of God’s creation.  Mankind has been given the gift of freewill. What the Founding Fathers of the U.S. deemed unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what if this freedom is used badly?

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.

Stick around here long enough and you’ll quickly realize that  I am not a risk-averse individual. So nice shot Jack.  See, EPG? I’m warming up to CSL now! Wait a second.  This is baloney and I don’t like it. I argue that a perfect and all-knowing God would never deign to stoop so low as to…give me freedom? Yeah, the argument falls flat because,

When you are arguing against Him (God) you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

Mental picture of Wile-E-Coyote popping into your head yet? Here, let me help.

Talk about the “fall”! This is the price of freedom.  You’ve heard the remark that “freedom isn’t free?” Whaaat?! You just thought it was some trite remark to honor the sacrifices of veterans like me and CS Lewis? Are you smelling the coffee yet? Jack shoots another round right into the black.  This is his genius coming to the fore.

Speaking of the fall,

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”-could set up on their own as if they had created themselves-be their own masters-invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history-money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery-the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

We also learn how, and I use Jack’s word, asinine it is to describe the conduct of Jesus in any other way other than as that of God.  No man would say he was God and would forgive all of your sins regardless of how heinous they are to the offended party. But that’s enough from me on this chapter, because other wise I could just post every single word of it and we would be here all day!

Chapter 4 is The Perfect Penitent where Jack leads us to understand that,  given what we have learned this far,

it seems to me obvious that He (Jesus) was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form. And now, what was the purpose of it all?

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start…A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.

Rally on the Beacon of Light troops!  Because God has given us a do-over of epic proportions! How?

We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world…We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.

And another thing.  Remember how we are in enemy territory? What most haven’t realized is that they are also in the rebel army.  This is like the movie The Matrix when Neo takes the little red pill to be awakened to reality! We read, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Lewis goes on to give a spectacular lecture on the nuts and bolts of how Christian salvation works.  And it works because Christ is the perfect penitent for He is Perfect and as a human, he was humiliated and surrendered willingly to this sacrifice.  Leadership by example troops!

Chapter 5 The Practical Conclusion we see that Christ is the New Adam. Lewis is brilliant again in his exposition on how this comes about and how we as Christians have our own lives transformed.

There are three things that spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names-Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper. At least, those are the three ordinary methods. 

(Jesus) taught His followers that the new life was communicated in this way. In other words, I believe it on His authority. Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority.

Chapter 1 of Book III is The Three Parts of Morality and they are humdingers! Lewis sums them up as follows:

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

I’m not gonna share anymore on this because I want to hear from you now.  Has everyone else enjoyed this weeks section of readings as much as I have? I promised there would be no pop quizzes, but I wasn’t expecting this much fun this week.  Thanks, Jack! See you next week.

Next week we read Book III Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Because of the Carmelite Chapel at the Northshore Mall, and Ruthie, Of Course

I never met my mother-in-law, Ruthie McNiff, but I feel a new kinship with her now that I have become a more frequent visitor to the first Catholic chapel ever established in an American shopping mall. Katie says her mother, who died before we were married, was a big fan of the St. Thérèse Carmelite Chapel-in-the-Mall, tucked behind the Carmelite Gift Shop in the basement of the Northshore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts, right under Joe’s American Bar & Grill. I was there again last night and felt her presence.

I attended a new men’s group in the reception area behind the chapel vestry and sat directly opposite the portrait of St. Thérèse that adorns the top of this post. No, that’s not Ruthie, but I’m pretty sure she was there too. Katie’s father died when Katie was seven—and Ruthie’s seven children ranged in age from one to ten—leaving the unemployed, newly single mother alone to fend for herself. Which she did, in a Cape Cod–style house the size of a jumbo postage stamp, notably with God’s help. Ruthie was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1983, before Katie and I began dating in earnest, so we never met face to face, not yet anyway.

But last night, there was St. Thérèse and there was I and there was Ruthie too, observing as a group of nine guys passed a rosary around and talked about their experiences as Catholic men, with a focus on action, piety, and study. The words exchanged were very private, except for the presence of a cloud of witnesses, so I won’t get into details. But I’ll be back next week and the week after that. This whole phenomenon of Catholic men’s group meetings—for God, not for beer—is starting to grow on me.

As is the chapel itself. I may return more often, especially on Thursday mornings, our one off-day for daily Mass at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea in Beverly.

The chapel, shown here, also features a large book and gift shop next door. It was founded in 1960, when the Northshore Mall was an exposed strip-type mall like the one Allison Salerno described in her guest post today. And boy, hasn’t Allison stepped into the breach since my writing yesterday that I may slow my own posting for a few days? Her piece yesterday for Candlemas was right on the money, too.

Allison writes of another mall-based Catholic chapel-cum-bookstore in New Jersey near her home, a chapel that regrettably has closed. God be praised, the Peabody Carmelite chapel is being renovated this month, for its 50th anniversary, thanks to the genial leadership of Carmelite Fathers Mario López, Felix Prior, and (director) Herbert Jones. Please keep them in your prayers, along with my mother-in-law, Ruthie McNiff.