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.

To Be Frank, Part 4, “From Pascal To The Mother of All Projects”

I left off last time with my friend Blaise Pascal throwing me something like a complete game shut-out and a no-hitter as well. Frankly, this guy was starting to get irritating. His immense knowledge of Scripture was the capper. The fact that he wasn’t even breaking a sweat was especially galling.

That’s because I thought I was really knowledgeable about the Bible. I had never read it cover-to-cover, but so what? Since I was old enough to remember, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, week-long Summer Bible Camp, and of course, actually reading it occasionally made me the “duty expert” on Scripture, compared to my wife anyway. The “cradle Catholic,” she was almost completely ignorant of the Bible.

When we got married, she had no idea what books were in the Bible (“I thought the Bible was the book”—sheesh!). The concepts of Old Testament and New Testament were not completely foreign to her, but hand her a Bible and it might as well have been a road map of Middle Earth written in runes. A map like that wouldn’t help her find her way from the Inland Empire to the San Fernando Valley. Everyone knows that Catholics are clueless about the Bible. Everyone I knew, that is.

And yet, Blaise Pascal knew the Bible, seemingly backwards and forwards. He was getting to be intolerable. Evidently he didn’t get the memo that I, the non-Catholic, was the “duty expert” on Scripture in my household. So I did the only thing I could do. I put his lousy unfinished book down and went to work on the staircase.

Have you ever pulled a stunt like that? I had, many times. “How dare you insult my superiority?!” That was my routine response, before I was Catholic anyway (and even today, I must still be vigilant). But I wasn’t a Catholic yet, so I just went to work out my frustrations on the stairs.

Ah, the stairs. My wife is laughing now! Took me a year to finish them. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about my marriage. It took one hour to remove the old carpet and about 300 days to figure out the next steps and generally hope I hadn’t made an irrevocable, not to mention expensive, error. Pray!

Here is the story in a nutshell: We bought an older home with wall-to-wall carpet. Having three young children who are outdoorsy types and one dog, this situation was not pretty—for the carpet, that is, which was light gray. Knowing that it rains a lot here in my new hometown, my wife and I knew that the carpet was not going to cut the mustard. Solution? Remove and replace with wood.

I learned a lot. One of the first things I learned was that rookies don’t build stairs. Too late! I embarked on a crash course in carpentry. I had to order a few books on stairs, and as I worked, I gained a healthy, new found admiration for the skills of a good carpenter.

Our Lord and Savior is a carpenter too, in addition to being the Word made Flesh and Maker of All Things Seen And Unseen. He was born into a family business run by St. Joseph. And Joseph didn’t dally in carpentry either. It was his vocation, it put food on the Holy Family’s table. As I worked, I thought if this was my career, I’d probably starve.

During lunch breaks and such, I returned to the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books for inspiration and came upon the next jewel in this collection: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I thought to myself, Now that is a bold title! What an understatement.

Running away from Blaise Pascal, I was leaving the frying pan and heading straight for the fire. Reading the introductory note to The Imitation, I learned the following:

With the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this. And yet, in one sense, it is hardly an original work at all. Its structure it owes largely to the writings of the medieval mystics, and its ideas and phrases are a mosaic from the Bible and the Fathers of the Early Church. But these elements are interwoven with such delicate skill and a religious feeling at once so ardent and so sound, that it promises to remain what it has been for five hundred years, the supreme call and guide to spiritual aspiration.

Let me get this straight. This is the second most popular book in the world and I had never even heard of it? What planet had I been on! All of this time, I had thought that only the stairs needed renovating, when in fact I was the one in need of time in the dry-dock.

Next time: The Imitation of Christ (and my almost finished staircase).

Because I’ll Take Gaudi Over American Gothic Any Day

Posted by Webster 
Saturday night, Katie and I saw an exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Association in nearby Gloucester, Mass., home port of the Andrea Gale of “Perfect Storm” fame. I’m not a museum goer; Katie lured me with the promise of a photographic show on “Churches of Rural New England.” The word I didn’t take into account was rural. 

The cover image for the catalog (left) was typical of every image in the show: Each church photographed by Steve Rosenthal was shot straight on—never from an angle, always in black-and-white—and always but always Protestant. I read every caption closely: Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, United, Congregational—not one Catholic.

Has my view of the world changed that much since I converted to Catholicism? I used to think of rural New England as God’s country. Now? Where the heck are the Catholics?! I wrote in the visitor registry: “Not one image of a Catholic Church! What does that tell you.” Coward that I am, I left the comment unsigned.

But that word rural. Of course, that omits most Catholics because, since the day New England was first settled by Europeans, the Catholics have been in the cities: the Irish and Italians in Boston, the Portuguese in New Bedford and, yes, Gloucester, with many other national and ethnic groups added to the melting pot, of course, including Poles, Lithuanians, Brazilians, natives of a dozen Spanish-speaking lands, another dozen peoples from Southeast Asia, and of course, the first Catholics in New England, the French (Canadians).

There’s a meditation to be made on these white, four-square Protestant churches—symbols of “traditional New England values.” They look very much like the municipal buildings with which they are often grouped: no ornamentation, no statues, no crosses even. Their only indelible signature is the spire, the single I of aspiration pointing heavenward.

I’m sure someone has written about this better and longer elsewhere. I’ll finish by saying that I’ll take the flamboyant, over-decorated churches of Europe any day of the week, the more gargoyles the better. I can’t think of a better contrast to the rural churches of New England than the divine monstrosity that has been rising in Barcelona for over 125 years, the Sagrada Familia (left), most associated with the artist-architect Antoni Gaudi (1852–1926) and still under construction! 

Like a pile of great wax stalagmites dripped from the fires of heaven, the towers of Sagrada Familia will, let’s face it, never be found in rural New England. Which almost makes me want to move to Barcelona.

Because of Joan of Arcadia VIII

Posted by Webster 
I’ve fallen behind in my series of posts on the TV series that for two years, 2003–2005, reminded me again and again why, after 40 years in the wilderness, I was meant to be a Catholic. Even though I wouldn’t become a Catholic until 2008. In a catch-up frenzy, here are brief summaries and quick thoughts about three episodes in the middle of season one.

Season 1, episode 12, “Jump” Rocky, the little boy Joan took care of in a previous episode, dies; a dream in which Rocky turns into Adam makes Joan fear that Adam might commit suicide in grief over his mom’s suicide. Meanwhile, Will (Dad) wrestles with a job change; Luke and Grace work on a science fair project; the paralyzed Kevin begins to contemplate what a love life with co-worker Rebecca might be like; and Helen (Mom) waits on the sidelines, only to land the best scene of all, when she reads Adam his mom’s suicide note.

As always, the encounters with God in this episode offer something to chew on. After Rocky’s funeral, Joan runs into God in the form of a creepy old man. Joan is understandably angry at God for taking Rocky away. And understandably miffed when God gives her a truism to explain the greatest mystery: “Death is a dividing line.

Joan: I don’t need God to tell me that death is a dividing line. Everybody knows that. What we don’t know is what it divides us from. 
God: One of the necessary mysteries . . .
Joan: Oh, come on! God, try me! Give me a hint!
God: I leave hints all over the place. I’m all about hints. Like Adam appearing in your dream. 
Joan: Well, maybe you could give me a quick look into the big picture, then maybe I could be good at this.
God: As you wish, Joan.

Whereupon, in a cacaphony of voices and a blinding flash, Joan apparently gets a look at “the big picture.” She wakes up in a daze, babbling, and the only hint of the magnitude of what she saw comes in her next encounter with God, now a doctor hunched over a vending machine. Joan calls hints “all that I can handle without falling over.” Which suggests to me that the vision of life after death, of the total divine plan, is far too stunning for our little human minds to encompass. Which is why God can only communicate to us in hints.

In this scene God talks about the “ripples” we all leave behind after we die. Rocky’s ripples were good; Adam’s mom’s ripples, not so good. Which leads to the suicide note. Adam was afraid the note would blame him for his mother’s death. Instead—

Dearest boy, my Adam: I dreamed a dream, you and I facing each other in a tiny yellow boat on green water under blue sky—me and my son and the yellow boat. And we laugh and the boat rocks and the ripples spread from boat to pond to sea to sky, and nothing can stop them, nothing ever will. When you think of me, Adam, know that in a world of pain, you were and always will be my joy. Love, Mom

It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole series, beautifully read by Mary Steenburgen as Helen, and it leads finally to a reconciliation between Joan and Adam.

Season 1, episode 13, “Recreation” I’m going to make my job easier here, this Saturday in Advent, by saying simply that I think this is one of the weakest episodes in the series. I didn’t say it’s not entertaining. But the message—despite God playing on the word recreation, as in re-creation, as in starting anew, as in big deal—seems to boil down to a worthy but wimpy “Just say no” (to drugs and alcohol). Though not necessarily to violence.

This episode has two major plots: (1) Will and Helen go away for a spa weekend, with hilarious scenes between Will and some obnoxious men at the spa, ending in a fistfight and knock-out for Will. (2) With the “parentals” away, the kids play, throwing a party at the Girardi home. Why? Why does Joan do most things? Because God tells her to.

The upshot of throwing the party, and of the party getting out of hand, is that Lt. Williams (Will’s lady colleague) is drawn away from a stakeout at a meth lab to handle the noise complaint from the party; as a result, her life is probably saved when the meth lab explodes. The point made is made better many other times in the series. Still, it’s a good point: If we do God’s will (throw a party), there will be positive consequences (Lt. Williams lives), even if the consequences aren’t direct, even if they don’t involve us.

Or as Bob was saying at men’s group this morning: Guys going to Adoration daily can have far-reaching consequences for others, in ways the guys don’t even suspect.

Season 1, episode 14, “State of Grace” This episode features hilarious scenes with Friedman, Luke’s buddy and unofficial sex counselor. Friedman tells Luke to give up his crush on Grace (“You’re always throwing yourself against the one gate that’s locked”) and to go after Glynnis. (“Did you see the look Glynnis gave you in Chem today? That’s a look you usually have to download.”) Meanwhile, Will investigates a brutal attack on a (Protestant, Harvard Divinity School) priest who may have been having improper relations with a young man; the high school art teacher quits, which will lead to Helen taking the job in a subsequent episode; Rebecca invites Kevin to dinner at her place; and God tells Joan to join the debate team.

For her first debate, Joan is paired with Scott, a boy with a terrible stammer, and the two have to defend tighter security at Arcadia High School, which of course leads Grace to accuse Joan of “giving voice” to fascist ideas. (Gotta love Grace, don’t you? The photo is Becky Wahlstrom, the actress who plays Grace, in a very un-Gracelike moment.) It turns out that while Scott has trouble speaking, he has no trouble doing the research.

Joan: You have so many great ideas in here and so many impressive big words. I mean, it would take two guys to lift these words, they’re so big. Look, all you have to do is find your voice, Scott. Just let the world know what great thoughts you have. 
Scott: My voice?
Joan: Yeah, listen, if Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, and Carly Simon can all cure stuttering, so can you.
Scott: Who’s Carly Simon?
Joan: I don’t know, but James Earl Jones is Darth Vader. That is so freaky.

Through his experience with Joan, Scott realizes that while debating may not be his personal charism, he does have a talent for writing. In that way, Joan helps him “find his voice.” Joan thinks she has completed her mission and decides to quit debate too. Butcher God tells her that she’s not finished, that he told her to join the debate team so that she could debate, leading to an interesting discussion of belief vs. truth.

God: So you think believing something to be true makes it true?
Joan: Well, if believing in things was wrong, that would put you out of business pretty fast, wouldn’t it?
God: I don’t exist because people believe in me. I simply exist, whether they believe in me or not. Hanging onto beliefs, that’s not truth. Open your mind, Joan. Read [the research that] Scott gave you. Be a part of that debate tomorrow.

When Grace taunts her past tolerance during the debate, Joan finally finds her own voice, speaking out in favor of gun control, partly with a very heartfelt defense of her father’s work with guns. Then having delivered her argument, she runs from the room. When God catches up with her, Joan tells him that by forcing her to debate, God cost her a friend, Grace. “Do you know the meaning of grace?” God asks Joan. “It’s a touch of truth that lets you see the world in a new way. It’s a gift that can be felt only when you’re open enough to accept it.” The scene ends with God walking away and Grace—evidently moved by Joan’s passionate argument—approaching to apologize.

Oh, and Kevin backs out of his date with Rebecca (to be continued), Luke kisses Glynnis kisses Luke, Will discovers that the priest was innocent of child-molestation, and Helen applies for the art teacher’s job. Until next time . . .