Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. President

It is difficult to imagine the 44th president of the United States delivering this Thanksgiving address as George Washington did 220 years ago.

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Geo. Washington, President

Golly, you can’t even get away with “in the year of our Lord” anymore! Then again, it’s hard to imagine either Bush, a Clinton, or any other recent president putting God above country. You’d probably have to go back at least to Abraham Lincoln to find anything comparable.

My thanks to reader Frank Weathers for this find!

Happy Thanksgiving,
Webster Bull

Thanks to Father Barnes IV

I don’t know what I would have done if I had walked into a Catholic Church two years ago this fall and not found Fr. David Barnes. I might never have stayed. Yesterday and again this morning, I was reminded of what an effective, persuasive priest he is, as he spoke from the pulpit on the Tobin–Kennedy matter.

First, let me be clear that what follows is my understanding of what Father Barnes said. Please credit me with any misunderstanding. The good padre has enough on his plate; he shouldn’t have to answer questions about something stupid a parishioner wrote in a blog!

Second, Father barely mentioned the Catholic cause of the week, Providence (RI) Bishop Thomas Tobin’s request that Congressman Patrick Kennedy refrain from receiving communion because of Kennedy’s outspoken support for abortion. But it was clearly his personal focus.

Each morning, while referring to readings and to the martyrs honored by the liturgical calendar, Father suggested that there are many ways we can err as Catholics. Tuesday, he referred directly to the Tobin-Kennedy affair only at the beginning of the homily, saying that we must be neither “laissez-faire” nor “gleeful”—two common responses, one on either side of the current issue. Sure, it is wrong for cafeteria Catholics (my term, not his) to say, “Aw, heck, what’s the big deal? Give the guy communion!” But it is just as wrong to exult in the sins of another, as many do when they say of Kennedy or anyone in his position, “Ha! Serves him right!” To conclude his homily yesterday, Father asked us to meditate on the Vietnamese martyrs, Andrew Dung-Lac and companions. They call us, he said, to a far higher moral position than either the laissez-faire or the gleeful.

Today, Father put a different spin on the matter, referring not to Tobin or Kennedy by name but only to the teaching authority of our bishops. He urged us to recognize that in the Catholic Church the bishops have such authority and that we must listen. To me, this was a ringing endorsement of Tobin’s position, although Father never said so explicitly. Instead, he asked us to consider again that we can err on two sides. On one side are those who are so assimilated to our secular culture that they not only don’t support the Church on social issues but are even embarrassed by the position Tobin has taken. On the other side are those who, when not gleeful at Kennedy’s embarrassment, are railing stridently against him and all those who support abortion. Father Barnes’s best line of the two days was this: “It’s very easy for Catholics to become talk-show hosts.”

Again, Father Barnes asked us to meditate on a martyr: St. Catherine of Alexandria (left), who despite her suffering in captivity apparently radiated such joy in her faith that she converted the emperor’s wife and her jailer, before she herself was executed. There is no more convincing witness, Father Barnes said, than the way a Catholic bears suffering.

This he tied in with today’s Gospel (Luke 21:12–19), in which Jesus warns his Apostles that they themselves will be called to martyrdom. There is a wonderful commentary on this Gospel reading by preacher to the papal household Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa in Magnificat, which I unfortunately do not have in front of me. The drift of the commentary is this: We may not be called to martyrdom, but as we age and fail in health, many of us will be in the position of Christ before Pilate and the Apostles before their persecutors: Stripped of earthly strength, we will have only our faith to sustain us. Then, each of us will be called to witness to our faith.

I could not help leaving church this morning thinking of my own father, who died helplessly in a hospice bed last autumn. He was no Catholic, but the quiet dignity and, yes, the religious faith with which he accepted his fate, and smiled gamely up at us from his pillow, is a witness I will always treasure and try to honor.

Because I am Peter, Revisited

Many thanks to Laura R. for sending this video tour of the scavi (excavations) under the Vatican referred to in my initial post about St. Peter.

Readers may also be interested in information available at this link.

Because I Am Peter

I went to bed last night re-reading George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, the chapter about St. Peter and Catholicism’s physicality. I woke up this morning to Peter’s second letter in the Office of Readings, where he says, “We were witnesses of His sovereign majesty.” Do you find that sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at you?

Peter was so many ways a failure, as I have been. Denying Christ three times is only the best-known example of Peter’s failings. A recent thorny issue in my life reminds me every single day of my own.

In his chapter on the Apostle, Weigel takes the reader to the Vatican and to the scavi (excavations) beneath, where Peter’s actual physical remains have been discovered. The body parts below the shins are missing, suggesting that after Peter had died upside-down on the cross, he was removed by cutting off his feet. Talk about physicality! Then Weigel leads us outside to  St. Peter’s Square and the obelisk that stands at the center. Weigel links this obelisk, which stood in Nero’s circus during the first century AD, with Peter’s martyrdom, which may well have taken place in that circus. But not before reminding us of Peter’s final denial. Peter wanted to escape martyrdom, tradition tells us, but as he fled Rome he encountered the Risen Lord. Peter asked Christ, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (Where are you going, Lord?) And Christ said: “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Whereupon Peter, for the final time in a long lifetime of times, realized his error and headed back to Rome, to be crucified. Weigel writes:

Tradition tells us that Peter died during one of Nero’s spasms of persecution, and if so, he likely died in Nero’s circus. If he did, then it’s quite possible that the last thing Peter saw on this earth was the obelisk you’re now pondering, which was moved to the square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. Think about that . . .

I did think about that. And later:

Imagine Peter, in the agonized moments before his death, looking at that obelisk we can see today, and you can understand that none of this is easy.

I flicked off my iPhone with its Kindle app, and went to sleep imagining that as well. After ending the day with Peter’s last vision, I began the next with his voice, in the Office of Readings. Imagine writing this eye-witness account, as Peter did of the Transfiguration:

It was not by way of cleverly concocted myths that we taught you about the coming in power of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we were eyewitnesses of his sovereign majesty. He received glory and praise from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him out of the majestic splendor: “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company on the holy mountain. 

We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company . . . Peter was there! This imperfect, constantly sinning, ever-forgetful fisherman whose real name wasn’t even Peter—was there. I take comfort in this fact. It suggests that I can go to bed every night distraught over my own failings, but still the sun will rise and there will be evidence good enough for a court room that God is merciful, reason enough for even a skeptic to hope. 

None of this is easy, Weigel writes, and Peter agrees, urging us to—

Keep your attention closely fixed on [the prophetic message], as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts. 

Because “New Age” Will Soon Be Old Hat, Revisited

Following my post of Monday evening about her article in Catholic Exchange, “New Age: Still With Us and Still Dangerous, Part I,” Cheryl Dickow e-mailed me, “Please make sure you read part II today and reconsider your perspective—allowing people to feel lax about the New Age doctrine can indeed be dangerous.” I did read part II, and so can you. It doesn’t change my thinking. In fact, it makes this old mule even more obstinate.

Part II is mostly an interview with a New Age debunker, Sharon Lee Giganti. Giganti has made it her mission to reveal the worst tragedies associated with New Age thinking.

I had such a tragedy in my distant family. True story: A New Ager got sick with cancer and her New Age husband decided against traditional medical care, opting instead for prayer. He and his wife both agreed that, if they could just eliminate negative thoughts from their lives, healing would flow naturally. The wife died painfully. The family was shattered, emotionally and literally (some still don’t talk to others).

The name of the New Age “religion” in question here? It’s not so new at all. Christian Science. The picture is a hint: CS founder Mary Baker Eddy. Looks pretty New Agey to me.

Because “New Age” Will Soon Be Old Hat, and the Church Will Still Be Standing

I read Cheryl Dickow’s Catholic Exchange article for 11/23/09 with interest and a shrug. “New Age,” the title frets: “Still With Us and Still Dangerous.” Still with us? Sure. Still Dangerous? To me, the New Age, now in reruns, is no more dangerous than, say, “2012″ or Britney Spears. You can judge for yourself about them.

I fully agree with Dickow’s opening premise: There are millions of so-called Christians who believe they don’t need the Church. God is everywhere, even at the beach. Who needs clergy, buildings, liturgy? In the college-educated, knee-jerk-liberal suburbs north of Boston, I am surrounded by people who think like this. Many of them buy this basic premise of today’s New Age, along with another fundamental tenet: “I create my own reality.”

But to me, who was a young adult during the tsunami of so-called “spiritual awakening” that characterized the late 1960s, when the parents and grandparents of today’s New Agers were channeling Eastern thought into the western mainstream, what passes for “New Age” today looks like just another publishing fad, a third-degree undertow of the tsunami, or what the Sufis (popular in the late 1960s) called the soup of the soup of the soup. Personally, I’m going to let it all wash out to sea. The Church will still be standing.

How do millions of Christians get duped into believing the ramblings of New Age messengers like the best-selling Neale Donald Walsch? The same way they get duped into believing the premise of films like “2012″ and listening to artistes like Britney Spears. It’s the media, stupid. Ten years from today, guaranteed, other gurus, blockbusters, and chanteuses will be running up even bigger numbers. The Church will still be standing.

Here’s my perspective. You have to go back to the First World War and the years following. Ha, ha, sorry—I’m not that old, but I’ve done my reading. It was after the first war that T. S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” a description of the spiritual landscape in the 1920s, and Robert Graves wrote “Goodbye to All That,” a sad adieu to all the old certainties. The war’s terrible slaughter had left the West limp with disillusionment, and the old ways, all of them, had been shown to be moribund—apparently. Modernism was the vogue, and other isms like communism, socialism, and existentialism were in the ascendant. Catholicism? Outdated, ossified, impotent, unnecessary.

Across this landscape came mesmerizing figures from the East to fill the spiritual void that undeniably existed. Zen master D. T. Suzuki and Jiddu Krishnamurti, a sage identified by the Theosophical Society and schooled by Annie Besant, were two of the better known. Slightly less known but, for my money, far more compelling was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (left). I spent the years of my 20s and 30s reading the Gurdjieff canon, and although this is not the place to expound on it, I will vouch for its meaning to me—even today. But here’s my main point: Virtually every “New Age” principle being foisted on the gullible today amounts to a watered-down rip-off of a very interesting Gurdjieffian idea.

One example cited by Dickow, “I create my reality,” is a third-degree simplification of the Gurdjieff teaching that one’s “level of being” attracts one’s life. The term “I” assumes one level of being; Gurdjieff made no such assumption. In his own allegorical way, he held with the dogma of original sin and the brokenness of our humanity.

Another example not cited by Dickow is the symbol Gurdjieff arguably originated, the Enneagram (left). At Amazon.com right now, you can purchase 314 books with “Enneagram” in the title. Virtually all of these are third- or fourth-generation imitators of what, in the original, is an extraordinarily robust visual summary of the Gurdjieff teaching.

It was in the late 1960s that the teachings begotten by Gurdjieff, Suzuki, Krishnamurti, et al., flowered in the hothouse of countercultural rebellion against certainties political as well as spiritual. These teachings went mainstream; when “my generation” wasn’t sucking on hookahs and listening to “White Rabbit,” or striking against the war in Vietnam, we were all agog over the spiritual news from the East.

We got over it. The joke of my generation is that we turned the world upside-down, then most of us went straight. The joke of the next generation, today’s “New Agers,” is that they thought they discovered what we had already sampled and many of us had abandoned, at least those of us who went to work for Goldman Sachs and had 1.7 children.

Something else happened in the next generation, however, which runs completely counter to the New Age: an evangelical revival of traditional Christianity in the most secular country on earth, the United States. With the remarkable force transmitted by the papacy of John Paul II, backed up by the genial teaching of Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has been revitalized—potentially rediscovering the meaning of Vatican II and magnetizing such unlikely converts as . . . well, me.

So I’m not going to worry too much about the latest pablum being served up by New Agers, no matter how many books they sell. Ages will continue to come and go, but my money says, the Church will still be standing.

Thanks to Boston Catholics Who Came Before

I have often thought that I owe a debt to Katie’s Irish Catholic ancestors who helped populate our region north of Boston beginning around 1900. Now that I am reading Boston Catholics by historian Thomas H. O’Connor, however, I realize that my debt is far greater than I ever suspected. I have only read to 1900 so far, but here are some of the IOU’s I’ve rung up already.

  • In Boston, as elsewhere, Catholics began as the enemy. The reasons, when not driven by blind prejudice, were political and military. In simple terms, France and England vied for North America. So for the largely English (Protestant) population of pre-Revolutionary Boston, the threat came from the French (Catholic) population of Canada to the north. The French and Indian Wars lasted a long time (1689–1763), so several generations of Bostonians grew up with the equation French = Catholic = bad. It took courage to be a Catholic in Boston.
  • Here’s just one example from O’Connor, which sounds almost comical now but clearly wasn’t at the time: “During the winter of 1731–32, Boston was thrown into a minor panic when the rumor circulated that there was a Roman Catholic priest in town who was planning to celebrate a Mass for the local Papists on March 17—it being ‘what they call St. Patrick’s Day.’ Governor Jonathan Belcher immediately prepared to put into force the Massachusetts anti-priest law, and issued a warrant to the sheriff, the deputy sheriff, and the constables of Suffolk County authorizing them to break into dwelling houses, shops, or any other ‘Places or apartments’ in tracking down and apprehending any ‘Popish Priest and other Papists of his Faith and Perswasion.’”
  • The Revolution helped turn this around. The rebelling colonies tried to forge alliances with their old enemy, Catholic Canada, because Catholic Canada was now the enemy of their enemy, the British! 
  • The first public Mass in Boston was celebrated in 1788, or about 160 years after Englishmen, led by John Winthrop, began settling the peninsula.
  • Boston’s first priest arrived two years later, in 1790. That priest, Father Rousselet, and the next two Boston priests of significance, Fathers Cheverus and Matignon, were all French, trained in French seminaries. 
  • Those early priests covered a lot of territory, as the Boston diocese comprised all six New England states, and there are accounts of several priestly visits to Indian communities in eastern Maine that had been originally converted by Jesuit missionaries from France and had no priests of their own. All visits were by horse-drawn coach, of course; the Maine Turnpike was still far in the future.
  • The second bishop of Boston, following Cheverus, was Benedict Joseph Fenwick, a native-born American who began his clerical career in Baltimore. In Peabody, next door to Beverly, the Catholic high school, Bishop Fenwick, is named for him. Fenwick came to Boston and was consecrated bishop in 1825, about the time the first, smallest wave of Irish immigration was taking hold. The English government, deep in debt following its long war against Napoleon as well as the War of 1812, had put a financial stranglehold on Irish landowners, and many were forced by economic circumstances to emigrate.
  • This first wave of Irish Catholics in Boston was not warmly welcomed. O’Connor cites many outbreaks of violence against them in the 1820s and 1830s, some better known than others. There were: bands of marauding youths breaking windows and even destroying whole houses in the Irish-Catholic sections of the city near the waterfront in the summer of 1825; the notrious Ursuline convent fire of August 1834, set ablaze by an anti-Catholic mob although nuns and their young female charges were known to be inside (they all escaped, but no damages were ever paid); and the Broad Street Riot of June 1837, when a company of Yankee firemen clashed with a Catholic funeral procession, and the entire city almost was consumed in violence before the state militia restored order.
  • Famous New Englanders like Samuel F. B. Morse, of code fame, and the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, actively stirred up hatred against Irish Catholics with so-called nativist publications and sermons. 
  • Meanwhile, following the lead of Bishops Fenwick and Fitzgerald, his successor, Boston Catholics founded such institutions as The Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper still in publication today, and both the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester) and Boston College, all by the time of the Civil War.
  • The potato blight that began in 1845-1846 dramatically swelled the Irish influx to Boston. Previously, about five thousand Irish had arrived in Boston each year. In 1847, thirty-seven thousand arrived, and that was just the beginning. These immigrants did not find pleasant accommodations in Boston. They lived in hovels and tenements along the Boston waterfront, those that had homes at all, and they accepted the most menial and degrading labor available, when it was available. Meanwhile, Bishop Fitzpatrick built churches and laid all the plans for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Completed after Fitzpatrick’s death, the cathedral is almost as large as Notre Dame in Paris.
  • The Know-Nothings of 1854 were a mercifully short-lived but nonetheless vicious national outbreak of Catholic hating. You can Google them.
  • James Augustine Healy, a priest of African-American heritage (his mother was a slave), became first chancellor of Boston in 1855. In 1875, he would become bishop of Portland, Maine, the first African American bishop in the history of the Church. 
  • The Revolution had changed native Bostonians’ attitudes toward Catholics, then mostly French. The Civil War helped do the same for Boston and its Irish. Like the “Glory regiment,” which had demonstrated the courage and loyalty of black Americans in the Union Army, the Massachusetts Ninth, an all-Irish volunteer regiment, proved that Irish Catholics could be good Americans too. 
  • Another mark of Irish acceptance in Boston: Bishop John Fitzpatrick was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard College in 1861. 
  • Archbishop John Joseph Williams, consecrated 1866, looms over the final decades of the 19th century in Catholic Boston. During this period, an entirely different wave of immigration upset the delicate social balance achieved by Protestant Boston and its Irish newcomers. Now, the influx was from southern and eastern Europe, including many Jews of course, but also including large numbers of Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian Catholics. These had to be assimilated not only into Boston proper, but into the Boston diocese, as each new ethnic group wanted its own churches and its own priests.
  • Despite these pressures, this was the age of great advance in Catholic social institutions with the building of schools, orphanages, and three major Catholic hospitals. All were staffed by a huge new population of Catholic women religious, who outnumbered the total of priests, brothers, and seminarians in the archdiocese by two to one. The two largest communities were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (an important presence in our parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea) and the Sisters of St. Joseph. 
  • It was in the last two decades of the 19th century that a conflict arose that foreshadows much of the Catholic politics of our day: a basic tension between Americanists (who thought the American church and its bishops should have wide latitude to create a uniquely American brand of Catholicism) and Romanists (who wanted to adhere strictly to dictates of the Vatican). 

I’ll close with a quote from O’Connor that seems to me one of the most cogent explanations why the Catholic faith argues for a Republican-style, non-interventionist government system:

It was the general belief of both priests and their congregations that such social problems as poverty, crime, homelessness, illegitimacy, and alcoholism were not the results of any particular defect of society. They were, instead, the inevitable consequences of either individual weakness or personal immorality, usually resulting from a lack of religious faith. The solution to such problems, therefore, lay in promoting a spirit of moral self-control and personal self-discipline on the part of the less fortunate, not in passing a series of laws or in creating a complex system of secular institutions. 

Along these same lines, it was a traditional Catholic view that for the public sector to take over the dispensing of charity would be to deprive the ordinary Catholic of an important, if not essential, source of spiritual grace. The ability to gain salvation, according to Church doctrine, lay not only in faith but also in good works. For government agencies or public institutions to take over the care of the poor, the abandoned, the elderly, and the homeless would be to deprive individual Catholics of the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity and thereby gain grace.

Thanks to Father Barnes and his Father

Our pastor, Father Barnes, is a superb preacher. He never works from notes, yet even at daily Mass he manages in a few short minutes to improvise a cogent message from the readings and Gospel, a message I can grab and take with me through my day. On Sundays he moves to another level, preaching at four Masses, clearly with much preparation but still without notes—yet always, it seems, hitting the ten or twelve bullet points he has set for himself. I often attend two of the four masses, once as a parishioner in the pew, once as a singer in the choir, and I’m always amazed how organized, yet fresh each new version of his message is.

Today, for Christ the King—Well, don’t get me started on the choir. As we began to rehearse an hour early, at 9:30, I texted Katie: “Big choir today with pro singers and timpani!” It was my first chance to sing for an all-stops-out service like this one. Nothing less than a heart- and mind-blower.

But the homily: Today, I have a lot to take with me, and the purpose of this post is mostly so that I will remember a small fraction of the message. 

Father Barnes began by noting that “in a few minutes” we would be saying lines from the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. . . . ” And he made the clear connection between Jesus as king and Jesus as judge. He said that in our culture, almost the last sin anyone is willing to talk about is “the sin of judging,” of being judgmental. In fact, he went on, not only do we have to judge to survive (crossing the street: will that car hit me or not?) but we have to judge to be saved. 

Ultimately we have to judge our lives by one standard; we have to judge our lives by Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega. Father Barnes went on talking about the standards we commonly judge ourselves by, and I thought of the standards that have applied in my life: In childhood, there was quickness in the classroom, speed in foot races, and (mostly) the judgments of others, whether adults or childhood friends. In adolescence, a new set of metrics applied. I judged myself by grades, SAT scores, and certain body measurements, including but not limited to the circumference of my biceps. In young adulthood, in middle age—and so on. Dollars, percentage increases, accolades, dollars . . . We all know the standards. 

Meanwhile, we all forget The Standard: Jesus Christ. 

Father Barnes told a wonderful story about his father, a retired cop in a small city south of Boston and, to hear our pastor tell it, anything but a theologian. But Officer Barnes had the last word today. 

Father Barnes recalled that in his childhood, his family of five always sat in the same pew, adjacent to the first Station of the Cross: Jesus before Pilate. One day his father, the non-theologian, surprised the young priest-in-the-making, by saying that he always enjoyed sitting in this spot, right next to Pilate. Why? his son asked. Because, the father of our father answered, Pilate had the King of the World in front of him, and he thought he was king. How could he have been so stupid? It’s a good reminder, his dad went on, to realize that just when we think we’re so smart, we’re anything but.

It was the kind of homely example that Father Barnes so often uses to drive a point home. Jesus Christ is King of the universe—but is he King of my heart? And if so, when will I get the message and carry it with me, through this day and all the remaining days of my life?

For Minor Miracles II

As my father lay dying and as I sat one night by his side, reading the Liturgy of the Hours, an angel appeared in the room. This is how it happened.

I had been a Catholic less than six months; in fact, Dad would die six months to the day following my reception into the Church. He had been admitted to a hospice in Connecticut at the end of August, on the day following his 58th wedding anniversary. Mom and each of us six kids and several of the eleven grandkids were visiting him in shifts. September was moving toward the first day of autumn.

As anyone with any experience of hospice care knows, these can be astonishing places—featuring moments of grace in an atmosphere of divine serenity. In this facility, with twelve private bedrooms divided between two quiet wings off a central reception area, the patients seemed to be mostly like Dad: white and upper-income. Virtually all of the care-givers were black, many from Haiti or Jamaica. And they were uniformly not just consummate professionals but, at least through my emotional lens, saints.

During Dad’s final ten days, I spent a lot of time at the hospice, although I would not be with him when he died. Dad waited, as the dying are known to do, until each of his six children had paid one final visit, then he passed from this earth in the company of my mother and my daughter Martha. But I was there for most of the final act, as I say, even if I didn’t see the curtain come down. And I took the late shift several times, sleeping in a La-Z-Boy recliner by his bedside on four out of his last seven nights.

I didn’t sleep that well fully clothed in a La-Z-Boy, and several times each night I would wander out to the central reception area and chat with members of the night shift who happened to be around. That’s how I met Jerome. Jerome is from Haiti, which means his name is pronounced with a French accent: zhay-ROM. Jerome is a male nurse in his 30s, who had been hired to give private care to a man in the opposite wing. Jerome is about 6’4″ (or so he seems to me now in memory) and gifted with a beaming presence that begins in beautiful eyes and a wide smile but then seems to radiate from his entire self. To me, Jerome was like the stranger who becomes your friend in an overcrowded lifeboat out of sight of land. There were others in the boat (others on the day and night shifts whom I got to know by name), but Jerome was my sudden friend and the strong fellow I would have hung on to if the lifeboat had capsized.

One night about 1 a.m. I was sitting by Dad’s side with my back to the door of his room. Dad slept most of the time now. He had not yet entered the breathing pattern known as Cheyne-Stokes, a frighteningly machine-like pattern of fast breathing followed, at intervals, by nothing at all. The periods of nothing can last up to two minutes, so that every once in a while you say to yourself, Is this it? Is Dad gone? Then the machine starts up again. Dad began breathing this way early on a Saturday morning and we all thought he was near the end. Not only was he not near the end (he lived three more days) but that day at noon, he suddenly “woke up,” and the few of us gathered had one last chance to gaze at and return that wondrous Dad smile and even exchange a few words with him.

That night at 1 a.m., in the week before that Saturday, I was sitting with my back to the door, reading aloud from the Liturgy of the Hours while Dad slept. He didn’t respond to the psalms and prayers and readings of the night office. He only breathed without moving. I had no indication at all that he was even hearing me, although I had heard enough stories of even the deeply comatose “hearing” and “responding to” stimuli that I read away in a confident voice strong enough for him to hear clearly.

I became aware that someone had entered the room. The narrow vertical trapezoid of light from the door behind me widened considerably and a shadow cast itself on Dad in the bed and on the wall behind him. I heard soft footsteps as I continued to read, and as I came to the end of the psalm, I realized that Jerome was there, walking around my right side to the far side of the bed. Dad seemed to notice nothing.

I looked up at Jerome and he smiled his radiant smile back at me. Standing by Dad’s side now, he gently rubbed Dad’s forearm with his right palm, back and forth just a couple of times. “How are you, David?” Jerome asked in a pleasantly accented baritone. And as though Dad had been awake the whole time and as though Dad knew Jerome—they had never met until this moment—Dad looked up at Jerome with that unforgettable, indelible Dad smile and just twinkled his eyes for a moment. I told Dad, “This is my friend Jerome, Dad, and he has come to say hi.” Dad twinkled his eyes again at Jerome, nodded once, and closed his eyes again, settling back into sleep. Jerome smiled at me and walked silently out, while I got a grip on my emotions, then resumed reading.

I’m not sure whether I ever saw Jerome again after that. I have often thought I’d like to look him up, but you never know with angels: Are they listed in the phone book?

Note 1: I was moved to write this post after reading Julie’s lovely piece on her own father’s death in Happy Catholic. It’s inspiring and definitely worth reading.

Note 2: I wrote about Dad’s encounter with another hospice worker in this post.

Because . . . Gosh, Sometimes I’m Just Not Sure

There really are times when we Catholics give Protestantism a good name. In men’s group today, one of our most learned members read from a chapter on Mary in the Apocrypha, from The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary by George H. Tavard. At the end, I could all but feel the pain of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

We human beings can complicate things so much. Mary, as presented in the four Gospels, is the slightest of characters. After the infancy narratives we hear her say of Jesus at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you,” or words to that effect, and she never speaks again. She’s there at the Cross, she’s there in the upper room. But the most important scene of any biography is not given to us for Mary: her death, where, when, and how.

These matters—and so much more, to judge by this morning’s reading—are given to us by tradition, some of which comes from the Apocrypha or, rather, as Bill (left) referred to it, the Epigrapha. The Apocrypha are the books that the Protestant “reformers,” Luther et al, left out of the canon, conveniently to their arguments. The Epigrapha are the books that were never in the canon to begin with, left out by the early Councils that decided the canon.  

The names of Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim? They come not from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but from the Proto-Gospel of James. Tavard calls this Epigraphal book “orthodox in doctrine,” but not orthodox enough apparently to be accepted as part of the canon. How about the feast days the Church celebrates to honor Mary—the Presentation, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, yes, even the Birth of Mary? None of these are given to us in the Gospels.

I know that I am stating the obvious for many readers, who are far better versed in these things than I am. And before I get over my head in waters where I cannot swim, I’m going to back out and just sit on the beach for a think.

Because when you start diving deep in these waters, considering the many accounts that are not canon and considering the Councils, composed of eminently human bishops, who gathered the canon, you can be overwhelmed with doubt: What do we really know? On whose word do we know it? And did they know it, or only argue, or suppose it? And so on.

I know Ferde will be all over me for this one. His e-mail signature reads: “Ferde. If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.” And while I’m not sure about the doctrine of papal infallibility, I can tell you pretty categorically that I do believe in Ferde’s infallibility.

But I am not Ferde, and I am still on the beach, brushing off the sand and shaking my head. What I come back to is the Gospel, to the simple accounts of Mary there, and finally to virtually the only words she ever seems to have said, at least in anyone’s hearing: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Christ tells us what to do in the Gospels and nowhere else. Everything else is after the fact. Everything else is canon, deuterocanon, Apocrypha, Epigrapha, orthodoxy, tradition . . . Do I believe that the Holy Spirit guided each and every one of these deliberations? Or do I instead see some merit in the notion of Sola Scriptura, held by Luther and the boys?

I gotta tell you, right now, I don’t know. I’m just sitting on the sand (pretty cold here in New England this time of year) and I’m shaking my head.

But I’ll be back at Mass in the morning.


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