For the Soul of David Foster Wallace

The death of JD Salinger on Thursday and a comment from a reader on Friday about John Knowles have brought my own favorite fiction writer to mind. Sixteen months ago, David Foster Wallace (left) committed suicide by hanging himself. Compared with this final act, JD Salinger’s professional suicide, hiding out from the world in a hermitage, is small potatoes. But both lives, both deaths remind us how fragile, how transitory our highest impulses are, and how much we need God in our lives. Without God, it’s all just a big damn mess.

Let’s be clear about both JDS and DFW. In our enlightened post-modern culture, they were gods. At least I thought so—Salinger when I was Holden Caulfield’s age in the late 1960s, Wallace ten years ago when I read his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, for the first of three times, mostly while guffawing my guts out on a trip with Katie and the girls. I haven’t read it again since becoming a Catholic, and I’m not sure I would even like it now.

You don’t want to know what it’s about. Written in the mid-1990s about a dystopian near-future when years are named for products (The Year of Glad opens the book), Infinite Jest is set in a tennis academy and in the halfway house for substance abusers that happens to be next door. The main characters are tennis whiz Hal Incandenza, a possibly schizophrenic adolescent, not unlike Holden, who spends most of his time high on marijuana; and Don Gately, a recovering pill-popper who receives a terrible injury defending someone on the streets and dominates the last 100 pages of the novel, lying semicomatose in bed and hoping the nurses won’t administer painkillers, which will only re-addict him. Oh, and there’s a video so insidiously alluring that, once you sit to watch it, you become catatonic; the video is sought by a Quebecois terrorist cell that hopes to use it on the American population. You see, you didn’t want to know.

But here’s the thing, the very sad thing: Despite clinical depression (he went off his medication at the end, probably prompting the suicide), Wallace was basically a positive person, and IJ is shot through with silent prayers for humanity. Wallace told an interviewer that he wrote the novel to express a deep sadness he felt about our culture and its many forms of addiction. To my mind, that sadness clearly was the bedrock of a sincere hope for humanity (his and mine). I think he thought his writing could make a difference, but though he was perhaps the most inventive writer of his generation, he lost his way and, with it, his hope.

Without God? . . . Ultimately, without faith in ultimate redemption any hope is bootless. God is notably absent from both Catcher in the Rye and Infinite Jest. I did not know JD Salinger (who did?) but I will pray for David Wallace, because I knew and loved him well.

YIM Catholic Book Club — Update

Frank has started a good discussion about C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, our current book club selection. In the second week of reading, we have about 30 comments in just two days, a sort of rolling discussion involving ten people. But there’s still room at the table. Check out the latest post, get yourself a copy of Mere Christianity, and let us hear from you!

Because of J. D. Salinger, Unlikely as It Seems

J.D. Salinger died yesterday at the age of 91 and, full disclosure, I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye. Nor have I bothered getting detailed autobiographical information on Mr. Salinger. I can only say that his work had an effect on my prayer life, thus proving once again, to me anyway, that God continues to work through the secular in unexpected ways. [Read more…]

For the Spiritual Life of Children

One of my sisters’ children saw an angel in his backyard a dozen years ago, when he was five or six. I lived a thousand miles away and seldom saw my nephew, but I fully believed my sister’s account. I hadn’t thought of this for years—until yesterday afternoon in my religious education class. For the third time in two months, I was confronted with the spirituality of children. If one of my fourth-graders had begun describing an angel in his or her backyard, I would have stopped everything to listen.

I have been living under a complete misconception about these kids. I have imagined that they are all but unruly, that I have to muster up every ounce of energy and vocal authority just to keep them quiet. It’s a defensive reaction, I know, and comes with a sense of powerlessness. It turns out that all the power is the Lord’s; all I have to do is ask the kids to bring a rosary to class.

I should have learned my lesson when I took these sixteen ten-year-olds to confession in early December. Or when, with the help of my pal Ferde, I took them to Eucharistic Adoration a week later. On both occasions, as you can read in the linked posts, a deep silence and an openness settled over the group.

For yesterday’s class, I asked them to bring rosaries. All but three remembered, and one boy, M., my little seminarian in training, brought extras without being asked. For 30 minutes I set the table, talking on about the Blessed Mother, while the kids commoted. Then I asked them to get out their rosaries. Instantly, their fingers found the beads and their lips went silent.

A reader of this blog suggested that I read The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles. I bought it in early January; last night, I got it out and began reading in earnest.

I would like each of my fourth-graders to see a video recently posted by The Clay Rosary Girl, and I may show it to them next week. Meanwhile, you can view the video here.

Because of the Communion of Saints

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
My 13-year-old mistook me for a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. When I told Gabriel last week I had been fasting for Haiti, his response was “I don’t think that is necessary, Mom. No one is against Haiti right now.” Our son’s frame of reference for fasting was the tradition of a hunger strike—where participants fast in a public way as an act of political protest or to bring about a policy change. Such strikes happened in 2005 among Guantanamo Bay detainees, to protest their innocence and the conditions of their detainment.

Fasting in the Catholic tradition is far different, a concept lost on my altar-serving confirmandi boy-turning-man. And if he doesn’t understand it—a boy whose parents are deeply involved in the life of their parish—how about teens with a more tenuous hold on our faith?

I don’t blame my son for his ignorance. Not until May 2007 did I really understand the meaning of what had, until then, been a phrase to me: “the communion of saints.”

That was when our second son, Lucas’s, CCD teacher gathered us “First Communion parents” (there were six communicants and six moms showed up for the meeting) in the parish hall for a meeting to prep us for the sacrament.

“Do you understand what is going to happen Sunday?” the 28-year-old Catholic mother of two asked. Our answers were boilerplate: “They are undergoing a sacrament of initiation in the Catholic Church.” Or “They will receive the body and blood of Christ for the first time.”

“Okay,” she challenged us, “but what is really happening?” We had no answers.

She went on to describe how we all are part of a family that exists beyond the bounds of space and time. I left that meeting understanding—finally, at age 43—that this communion of saints is real. Each of us is part of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. That body includes those of us living in the “real” world, who pray for one another, and those who have gone before us, are living in a heavenly dimension, and are praying for us.

“Your children will fully enter into the mystical body of Christ on Sunday,” she said. “This is forever. Souls in heaven will be praying for them now, and when they die, your children will be praying for the souls on earth.”

Never has this communion of saints felt more powerful to me than right now. Consider that tens of thousands of people died in the Haitian earthquake without time to prepare. We can pray for their souls. We can pray for the families they left behind. We can offer our temporary suffering to relieve a piece of theirs.

In partnership with my parish priest and another mom who coordinates youth group with me, our parish is organizing a teen Fast for Haiti. Inspired by a movement loosely affiliated with Catholic Relief Services and being organized through the Internet, Catholics throughout the world have been donating $5 a meal to the Catholic Relief Services’ efforts in Haiti.

At our tiny parish, we hope to educate young parishioners about the role of fasting in one’s spiritual life. We plan to meet on a Friday night during Lent to fast and pray, play some quiet board games and make tee shirts that say “Fast for Haiti.” Teens will ask sponsors for $5 each, to be donated to CRS. Most powerfully, we hope to share with our young parishioners the value of prayer and fasting in relieving human suffering.

Because I am Catholic, I have the great comfort in knowing we can pray for the souls in heaven or on their way to heaven (the process known as Purgatory) and that the souls in heaven pray for all of us, too.

I hope my son and our other young parishioners will learn this essential lesson long before I did.

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity,” Week 2

It is week number two, club members, and time for some mere discussion on Mere Christianity. Unlike last week, when I posted a seemingly interminable essay on the first week’s readings, this time I will be leaving most of the discussion up to you.

But I have a few thoughts to share first.This week we read Book I, chapters 3–5, and Book II, chapter 1 and 2. [Read more…]

For Cathy’s Grandmother

This blog is blessed with some thoughtful and articulate commenters. There are times when I think the format of the blog should be reversed, with the comments on top, our posts beneath them, as footnotes. Now is one of those moments. We just received an extraordinary account from cathyf in response to a post yesterday about St. Angela Merici, whose feast day it was. Please read her story.

Cathy writes:

In 1928, my grandmother was 13 years old. Her father had recently died, her older sister had died a few years before, and a brother and sister had died in infancy. My great grandmother had more or less a nervous breakdown.

My grandmother is descended from the English Catholic recusants who emigrated to Maryland in the 1600s and then to Kentucky in the 1780s. In the 1880, the Ursulines founded a girls’ school in Owensboro, KY, and her ancestors donated money and land for the school. One donated so much that any female direct descendants could go there for free. So my great grandmother sent her two surviving daughters (my grandmother’s sister was 11) to Mount St. Joseph as boarders.

My grandmother always said that those years from 8th-12th grade were the happiest in her life, and despite Thomas Wolfe, she proved that some people, at least, can go home again. When she retired, some 45 years after graduating and moving across the country and never even visiting, she found a senior housing complex down the road from the nuns and moved “home.” She spent lots of time at The Mount, until 12 years ago when the ever encroaching Alzheimers forced my parents to move her away from KY to be near them.

My grandmother passed away in the early hours this morning, at 94 years old, most appropriately on St. Angela Merici’s feast day. I’m sure that she was welcomed by St. Angela, just as 80-some years ago St. Angela’s spiritual daughters welcomed her and mothered her as she so sorely needed.

For Minor Miracles III (b)

Blogging about why I’m blogging is a bit like watching myself watch myself in the mirror. I did a lot of that when I was a kid, but I’m not sure why I’m doing it in advanced middle age. Still, here I am, continuing a tale begun Monday about how this blog began in August, received surprise validation ten days later from Fr. James Martin, and continued to shape-shift.

Chapter 3 — The Ego Trip
The e-mail from Father Jim had arrived on August 27. Exactly two weeks later, or 24 days since writing my first post, I heard from one of the major forces in Catholic blogging, Elizabeth (“The Anchoress”) Scalia. Even now, I feel like I must be breaking one of the Commandments, writing about Elizabeth as though I knew her personally. I’ve never met another Catholic blogger in my life, not even Frank, face to face.

The subject line of Elizabeth’s e-mail of 9/10/09 read: “Your blog is astonishing.” The first line of the message gave another pump to the swollen balloon that was already now my head: “Expect to find yourself winning all sorts of those meaningless-but-fun Catholic blogging awards next year.” (BTW, the awards committee has not yet phoned from Stockholm, or wherever they meet.)

Throughout September, I continued to post about the influences that had brought me to convert to Catholicism at age 56. On October 5, I summarized these in a post based on one of my favorite psalms. I called it For His Love Endures Forever (Psalm 136b). This is also perhaps my favorite post, and if I was ever going to maintain my virginal purity as a blogger, I should probably have made it my last post. It accomplished pretty much everything I had set out to do, summarizing all of the wonderful people, books, and experiences that had brought me to Rome.

But by this time, two things had happened, at least two. I had subscribed to SiteMeter, a service that shows a blogger how many hits he’s getting and where they’re coming from. Like a Wii video game, this gives you an imaginary feeling of control, as though with body English alone you could increase the number of Visits or Page Views a day. There’s nothing to give one a Napoleon complex quite like looking at a world map of your last 100 hits and seeing that two were from Malaysia. When I told Father Barnes that I had had a hit from Italy, he warned me that the Vatican was watching me now.

The other thing happened immediately after my Psalm 136b post. I heard from another major force in Catholic blogging, Greg (“The Deacon’s Bench”) Kandra. Later the same day, he posted this at “The Deacon’s Bench”:

One of the pleasures of the blogosphere is discovering new and refreshing voices. Many are gifted. A few are brilliant.

And then there are those who defy any description. Every now and then, you encounter someone who just makes you sit up, swallow hard, and go “Wow.”

Webster Bull is one of those someones.

His still-new blog, “Why I Am Catholic,” is one of the most uplifting, joyful, inspiring, soul-stirring places in the blogosphere. Every day, he looks at why he loves the Church, and why he converted, and then he counts the ways. It’s so deceptively simple. But every day I read it, I feel like I’m opening a jewelry box; the place is full of gems. No other blog gets to me quite the way his does. (And I’m not alone in thinking that: I got an e-mail the other day from a veteran blogger, asking, “Don’t you just love ‘Why I Am Catholic’?” Yes. I do.)

Check out Webster Bull’s latest post, “For His Love Endures Forever.” This can only come from a heart full of wonder and gratitude and generosity and love. Love for his faith. Love for his God. Love for spreading the Good News. 

Pardon me, dear reader, but I’m going to stop writing for the night. I’m feeling unwell. And in fact, it was about this time, in early October, when I arrived at—

Chapter 4 — The Crisis of Faith
To be continued . . .   

Because of a Priest or Not — Revisited

A comment from Mujerlatina has stirred the YIMC pot the past couple of days. Courageously, she wrote that, though she is a cradle Catholic in her 40s, her ongoing formation as a Catholic has had “nothing to do with any clergy person!” Her extended remarks were the basis of this post from Monday. Commenters alternately seconded and criticized her statement. Not one to back down, Mujerlatina sent me a further comment about her particular experience as a woman: 

I firmly believe that my experience is cut somewhat down gender lines. Here’s how: The one female commenter who has a spiritual advisor found him in the FRIEND of her son—ergo a man much younger than she. I think that as women, because of the inherent celibacy issue of the priestly vocation, we are held at ARM’S DISTANCE from the priests. This is my impression. It is anecdotal. However, it is compelling. I have come to understand that, as a woman, the clergy really cannot bring me into the “fellowship fold.” Hence, no Father Barnes for the likes of me. So how’s THAT for an inflammatory statement? 

I will also add, that, while without priests there would be no Real Presence, God made Jesus incarnate to be in relation with fellow humans. So to say that the priest functions sufficiently in just a sacramental way is illogical. They need to also be there as humans, relating to the parish community—outside of liturgical activities. That does not mean they need to be there individual-for-individual, but to say mass and disappear until confession or a funeral or baptism is not their only role! The priest, consecrated lay person, monk etc. could provide more meaningful “food for the journey” as it were, by offering more communal reconciliation services, missions, prayer and healing masses etc. Wow, so sorry to drivel on. But these are very germane issues. 

Might I add that I really gained much sustenance and insight from all the comments — whether pro or con. Pax Christi.

In an e-mail to me, Mujerlatina asked whether I was concerned that this blog might become an “estrogen festival.” I answered that I think, with two guys at the controls, this jet might really fly with estrogen in the gas tank.

Your comments?

For Prayers Such As This

As the disciples asked Our Lord, “teach us to pray,” so we ask as well. As I have learned from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, simple prayer is often best—done anytime and anywhere, as well as by the devotion of the Rosary (I’m a neophyte admittedly!) and by reading the Liturgy of the Hours. But at other times, while doing spiritual reading for example, I have found prayers such as the one I found today in the Treasury of the Catholic Church.

The prayer below is attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose feast day is celebrated tomorrow by our Orthodox brethren and on June 9 by the Catholic Church. I wrote once on the pleasure of discovery in our faith. Finding prayers such as these, and sharing them with you, is a pleasure too. Find a quiet place and meditate on the pictures these words paint.

O Judge, whose judgment is righteous, and to Whom is known all that is concealed: condemn me not at Thy righteous judgment, when all secrets will be exposed!

With the tears that she brought to Thee, the harlot destroyed the record of her transgressions. Behold, I too bring Thee a gift of tears. Accept them from me, O Lord, as Thou didst accept them from her.

The evil one has deceived me with his caresses and has taken my mind captive with his seductions. Drive him away from me, who am miserable, O our Lord; snatch me from his hands, that he might not tear me to shreds.

Judge me, O Lord, and settle my dispute with the merciless enemy. He has made me a target for his arrows. According to Thy compassion, may those arrows gore him instead.

Be my helper, O Lord, for I am miserable and have no other helper. And do not let the enemy see me vanquished and mock me, as he mocked our foremother.

Woe is me if all my secrets are revealed and subjected to scrutiny then, when no justification will be considered. My spirit shudders, O Lord, for I hear that fire will consume the lawless, and I am straw and hay. And if Thou O Lord wilt regard my sins, I shall perish.

May Thy goodness, O Lord, that once lifted Thee onto the Cross for the redemption of our race, forestall me who am miserable, that I might be vouchsafed forgiveness of my sins.

Thou, O Jesus, hast redeemed all with Thy blood; and by Thy death hast Thou bound the powerful adversary. Release me from the fetters of the evil one; break his shackles and bonds.

Rebuke him so that he will withdraw from me, who am miserable, that his will might not be realized in me. Bring my will into accord with Thine, O Lord, Who blottest out my sins by Thy loving-kindness.

Do not leave me in the hands of the malefactor, and give him authority over me; for Thou hast prepared Thy flesh and blood as food for me, and Thy Cross in imprinted on my brow.

Strengthen me, O Lord, for I am infirm. Blot out my transgressions, for greatly have I sinned. Make chaste my senses, that they might submissively and unwaveringly follow Thy royal path.

May Thy light shine in my thoughts; may they be illumined by Thy rays, and may Thy magnificent radiance gladden them, for Thou art the sun that irradiates all.

Cleanse our stains with Thy hyssop, wash our sores with Thy blood, and sanctify the secret workings of our thought with Thy body.

Praise be to Thee, Who hast redeemed the human race which had perished, lifted it upon Thy shoulders and carried it into the house of Thy Father.