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 . . .

For Love of the Baby Jesus

Posted by Webster
Last night Katie and I took our friend Joan to see a creche collection that has been 45 years in the making. Tom Petitte, FSM, received an 11-piece nativity set from his parents when he took his vows as a Marist brother in 1964. Today his collection fills four classrooms in a parish education center in Peabody, Massachusetts.

That first 11-piece set is at the bottom center of this photo: the Holy Family, three Wise Men, a couple of shepherds, three sheep . . . Now, as you can see, Brother Tom’s collection of Fonantini nativity pieces, all created in one Italian village, is completely out of control.

And it’s only the piece de resistance of a collection numbering 200 nativity scenes. Sets, all of which have been given to Brother Tom, “come from six continents, and are made out of a wide range of materials including banana leaves, corn husks, wood, porcelain, pewter, glass and fabric and bear the names of well-known brands of collectibles, including Lenox and Precious Moments. Brother Tom’s collection contains Peanuts figures, as well as animal figurines.” The quote is from the on-line edition of The Pilot, the venerable newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, which featured the story this week.

Here’s another set, from Ireland. It belonged to Brother Tom’s grandparents. 

I spoke briefly with Brother Tom, whom I expected to be a bit of a romantic, if not postively mushy about his hobby. He was anything but. Very matter-of-fact, very friendly without pushing himself, the Marist brother with a fully developed Friar Tuck paunch told me that he is an instructor of theology at Malden Catholic High School. He lives at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Peabody, where the display is mounted, and serves as a pastoral associate in the parish.

This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. As the caption notes, it was created by a homeless woman.

Here’s a set from Africa made of banana leaves.

Wandering through rooms filled with tables displaying the collection, it was easy to wander in my own memories: back to my Ammie’s house in Minnesota in the 1950s. My grandmother, whom I wrote about here and who converted to the Catholic Church late in life, made a big deal about getting me over to her house on Lake Minnetonka on a wintry afternoon to set up her elaborate creche on the grand piano in her living room. She had twenty-six grandchildren when all was said and done, but I was, she always reminded me proudly, her oldest grandson, and I returned pride with pride. Since her oldest grandchild, my cousin Mary, lived in Connecticut, I had the singular honor of setting up the creche with Ammie—and first choice of her Christmas cookies.

This nativity scene from Brother Tom’s collection was carved into a log by an Amish craftsman in Pennsylvania.

This one is a cat nativity. Yes, Brother Tom has a dog nativity too, but I thought posting cats and dogs in one place might cause trouble.

I want to thank my choir buddy Sheila Ouellette for tipping me off to the exhibition in Peabody. I know most readers of this blog live in other states, or on other continents, but if you’re within driving distance, Brother Tom’s lovely tribute to the Holy Family is on display today and tomorrow.

“My goal is to help people to focus on the real meaning of what Christmas is all about,” Brother Tom told The Pilot. I think he has succeeded.

Because “Don’t Give Up the Ship” Makes Sense

As a relatively new convert to Catholicism (Class of 2008), friends have asked me the following question, “How could you join such a scandal-plagued institution?”

My answer has been something along the lines of what St. Peter said to Our Lord in the Gospel of John (6:67-69) when,

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are The Holy One of God.”

But the painting shown here speaks to me as well. It is entitled A Ship In Need In A Raging Storm and was painted by Willem Van de Velde II in 1707.

Throughout Her history, the Church has been depicted as a Ship. As a Marine, I have an affinity for all things nautical and love the jargon and the feel of all things naval. And I have written before that I read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien which, in a way, helped soften me up for Blaise Pascal’s assault on my personal beachhead.

The Ship as metaphor for the Church works to answer the question above easily for me. When your ship is damaged, due to weather or as a result of action against an enemy, the command is “man the pumps, clear spars, frother a sail over the hull, beach the ship for repairs,” etc.. The command is not “abandon ship.”

As for the members of the crew who commit acts of treachery, criminal conduct etc? Yes, they must be dealt with internally within the ship (using the Articles of War) and externally through the powers of the state. But again, and consider that I am just an able-bodied seaman (nothing more) writing this, when crises like these erupt, the alarm given is “man overboard!” and a life-line is thrown or a launch put down in the water in order to effect a rescue if at all possible. Sometimes, due to weather for example, this is not possible. But the order is certainly not “scuttle the ship.” Never.

Sometimes the orders and alarm occur simultaneously. And scandals will occur, as they always do. As Catholic Christians, we are called to man our battle stations and stay alert as members of the crew of His Majesty’s Ship. The command is “Don’t Give Up The Ship!”

Semper Fidelis

For All the Saints: Blessed Arthur Bell

Posted by Webster 
I love reading the list of saints each day. Most of the names sound so exotic. Today, the roll of honor is: Victoricus, Trason, Severin Ott, Sabinus of Piacenza, Practextatus, Pontian, Pens, Melchior Sánchez, Martin Lumbreras, Lucas the Stylite of Chalcedon, Ludolf van Craeywinckel, Maria Maravillas de Jesús, Johannes Laurens, Hugolinus Magalotti, Gentian, Fuscian, Fidweten, Eutychius the Martyr, Daniel the Stylite, Pope Damasus, Cian, Barsabas of Persia, and—finally, in reverse alphabetical order, a name that doesn’t sound at all exotic, in fact it sounds like he could be my cousin—Arthur Bell.

I had to look that one up. No one names a child Practextatus or Pens anymore, but Arthur Bell might be my nextdoor neighbor, even in Beverly, Massachusetts, circa 2009. And the name sounds, what, English? How many English saints are there?

Well, of course, Thomas More, one of my favorites, was English. It turns out that while More, like his friend John Fisher, stands alone in the Church’s pantheon, Bell is one in a list of eighty-three Martyrs of England, Scotland, and Wales, all beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Here is his citation from the Catholic Encyclopedia, courtesy of New Advent. (You could spend the whole day following these links!):

(alias FRANCIS) Friar Minor and English martyr, b. at Temple-Broughton near Worcester, 13 January, 1590; d. at London, 11 December, 1643. When Arthur was eight his father died and his mother gave him in charge of her brother Francis Daniel, a man of wealth, learning and piety, who sent him at the age of twenty-four to the English college at St.-Omer; thence he went to Spain to continue and complete his studies. Having been ordained priest, he received the habit of the Franciscan Order at Segovia, 8 August, 1618, and shortly after the completion of his novitiate was called from Spain to labour in the restoration of the English province. He was one of the first members of the Franciscan community at Douai, where he subsequently fulfilled the offices of guardian and professor of Hebrew. In 1632 Bell was sent to Scotland as first provincial of the Franciscan province there; but his efforts to restore the order in Scotland were unsuccessful and in 1637 he returned to England, where he laboured until November, 1643, when he was apprehended as a spy by the parliamentary troops at Stevenage in Hertfordshire and committed to Newgate prison.

The circumstances of his trial show Bell’s singular devotedness to the cause of religion and his desire to suffer for the Faith. When condemned to be drawn and quartered it is said that he broke forth into a solemn Te Deum and thanked his judges profusely for the favour they were thus conferring upon him in allowing him to die for Christ. The cause of his beatification was introduced at Rome in 1900. He wrote “The History, Life, and Miracles of Joane of the Cross” (St.-Omer, 1625). He also translated from the Spanish of Andrew a Soto “A brief Instruction how we ought to hear Mass” (Brussels, 1624).

(Pardon the graphic image. That poor martyr is suffering the fate of Blessed Arthur Bell: Having been hanged and drawn, he is now being quartered.)

YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4

Posted by Webster 
Earlier today, I posted the current membership roll. All are welcome to join the discussion, and if new readers leave a comment, they will be added to next week’s roll. (Late breaking news: Turgonian, a student from the Netherlands with an exceptional blog, “Epigone’s Eloquence,” has joined the YIMCBC. Welcome, Turgo!)

I think we’re all finding Chesterton pretty heavy going, but I think you’ll agree that that’s more a function of his style than of his content. In each chapter, there seem to be two or three central ideas. The rest of it—the alliteration, the analogies, the endless word play—adds up to trimmings on the Chesterton family tree. That said, let me lay out a couple of basic ideas in the next chapter to get the discussion started.

Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”
It’s tempting, living in 2009, to think we know more than those who lived in 209. From this side of the Enlightenment, everything prior seems like the Dark Ages, doesn’t it?

That’s one of the thoughts inspired by Chesterton’s preamble to this chapter, in which he refers to tradition as “democracy extended through time” and as “the democracy of the dead.” This is the thing that has struck me most forcibly about Catholicism, that as a member of the Catholic Church, I join ranks with the entire communion of saints. For two thousand years, women and men have been living by these principles, modeling Christ, saying the same prayers, participating in the same Eucharistic Mystery, yes, even going to confession, as my fourth-graders did yesterday. It worked for them. Why wouldn’t it work for me? Why wouldn’t the truths that have stood the test of two millennia not still be true? As I have written in another context, how did we think we were so smart all of a sudden—replacing the democracy of the dead with the aristocracy of the assinine? (I think the only way to meet Chesterton is to fight alliteration with alliteration!)

Chesterton’s ode to tradition takes up the first 15 percent, or so, of the chapter. (And in writing this, wasn’t he saying yes to the Catholic Church, founded on tradition, years before he became a Catholic himself? I think he was.) The rest of the chapter is given over to Elfland. I think others will have better comments here. I frankly got a bit lost.

I did find this passage especially good:

Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget. 

Like many in Chesterton, this passage gives me something to think about for a long time—at least as long as it will take others to comment on “The Ethics of Elfland.” . . .

YIMC Book Club Membership Roll – Update

Posted by Webster 
The YIM Catholic Book Club will be meeting this evening to discuss chapter 4 of Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. Drop in if you have a few on-line minutes to spare. (And here’s a secret: You can drop by Friday morning, or Friday afternoon, or even over the weekend. Just drop us a comment to let us know you were in the house. . . . Because psssst: It’s not a real book club.)

The YIMCBC membership roll has increased by two! Last week the following were listed as charter members: Mary P., Kneeling Catholic, EPG, Goodalice19, Mujerlatina, Mike, Regina, Frank, and Webster. This week, we add Mary R. and Pennyyak to the swelling mass.

Read on, oh YIMC Book Clubbers, read on!

Because Confession Can Change the World

Posted by Webster 
To set this world spinning the right way round, I think we Catholics might need to do just one thing: Start going to confession again. Then take our kids to confession. Once a month would be OK, once a week even better. Don’t believe me? Listen to me brag about my fourth-grade CCD class.

I’m sure you could change the world if you could just get your kids alone to go to confession, as my fourth-graders did today. Stand and watch as each of them prepares in silence, goes nervously through the door into the sacristy, and comes out again with a huge grin and a “whew,” then settles down on a kneeler to say penance. You yourself would start going to confession again just because the whole thing is so impressive, so moving—and the kids look so happy when it’s over.

Last week, we prepared for the Sacrament of Reconciliation by going over what you say and conducting a collective examination of conscience. I gave each child a piece of paper and a pencil, read them a series of questions, then told them after each question to write down any sins that occurred to them. Of course, their notes were “for their eyes only.” Here are some of the questions:

Do I think of God and speak to Him by praying each day?
Do I use the Lord’s name with reverence and love?
Do I attend Mass on Sunday or on Saturday afternoon?
Do I obey my parents and teachers quickly and cheerfully, or must I be reminded many times?
Do I obey the rules of home and school?
Am I kind to everyone?
Did I hit, kick, or in any way hurt others on purpose?
Do I make fun or say mean things to anyone?
Do I tell the truth?

There were more such questions on the list given to us CCD teachers to help our students prepare.

My kids have never been anything like this serious in any previous class. These kids chatter for a living. Suddenly, not a word. Last week, as I read the questions, they were hunched over their crib sheets like law school graduates over a bar exam. It was that intense. Biting their lips. Biting their erasers. Jiggling their feet nervously. And barely saying a word. Which is about as amazing as an entire amusement park going stone silent all at once.

I was very proud of the fourteen, out of sixteen, who showed up today. They could have blown it off, found any excuse to miss it. But I honestly think they wanted to come, even when they thought they didn’t. Even C., who was waiting nervously in his mother’s car as I walked up to the parish school building, where classes meet. His mom said he was nervous about confession and had lost his workbook for the second time. I crouched down to speak through the car window and tell C. that when I had my first confession two years ago, I was nervous as heck. I think I even used the word heck.

When attendance had been taken, Father Barnes led the way to the chapel in the convent next door to the parish school. He told the boys to remove their hats when entering the convent and showed boys and girls how to genuflect on their right knees before sitting in their pews. He asked them to be silent and prepare themselves while waiting their turn, and most were pretty good about keeping silence. Denise, the other fourth-grade teacher, and I counseled kids who looked especially nervous. Otherwise, there was that amazing, eerie phenomenon of thirty nine-year-old children sitting quietly for half an hour.

As each child came out of the sacristy, he or she pulled down the kneeler at their pew and said their penance. Then we walked back to our classrooms. I asked the children if anyone felt worse now than they did before confession. No one raised a hand. Who felt better? Everyone. Every single child.

Each child had an opportunity to talk about the experience. Then we ended with a prayer.

For All the Saints: The Martyrs of Samosata

Posted by Webster
I used to think that before my lifetime people lived in B/W, not color. That’s because in my childhood, all TV was in B/W. When a gangland boss was gunned down in the rerun of an RKO picture from the 1930s, the blood he bled was black. I would have thought the same for the Martyrs of Samosata, whom we remember today.

Abibus, Hipparchus, James, Lollian, Paragrus, Philotheus, Romanus: odd names living in a long-lost time in a city I never heard of. It’s good to remember that when they looked down at their scourgings from the crosses they were hanging on, they were bleeding in living color. Those were their names, Samosata was their city, and 297 was their time to die for Christ.

That’s what happened: seven crucifixions. About 260 years after the death of Our Saviour, the Roman Empire was still very much in business, and the emperor—in this case, Maximian—was still enforcing worship of the old idols. Of course, the corollary is that the Christian faith was still remarkably vibrant.

When, following his army’s defeat of the Persians, Maximian swept through this fortified city guarding a major crossing of the Euphrates River (now Samsat, Turkey), he ordered the temple rebuilt so that the citizens could sacrifice and give thanks to the Roman gods. I think it’s important to know your sources. In this case, the source is Father Alban Butler, 18th-century author of The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints; Butler’s source, in turn, was a priest who was an eyewitness of the sufferings of the Samosata martyrs and whose account was originally written down in Chaldaic. It’s not quite Joan of Arc, whose martyrdom is attested to by hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, but it’s not exactly Jack and the Beanstalk stuff either. This happened:

[As the sacrifices began] the whole town echoed with the sound of trumpets, and was infected with the smell of victims and incense. Hipparchus and Philotheus, persons for birth and fortune of the first rank in the city, had some time before embraced the Christian faith. In a secret closet in the house of Hipparchus, upon the eastern wall, they had made an image of the cross, before which, with their faces turned to the east, they adored the Lord Jesus Christ seven times a day. 

Imagine their faith that all they had for a chapel was an image of the cross drawn inside a secret closet! (From here on I’ll excerpt Butler.)

Five [younger] friends, named James, Paragrus, Habibus, Romanus, and Lollianus, found them in this private chamber praying before the cross, and asked them why they were in mourning, and prayed at home, at a time when, by the emperor’s orders, all the gods of the whole city had been transported into the temple of fortune, and all persons were commanded to assemble there to pray. They answered, that they adored the Maker of the world. James said: “Do you take that cross for the maker of the world? For I see it is adored by you.” Hipparchus answered: “Him we adore who hung upon the cross. Him we confess to be God, and the Son of God begotten, not made, co-essential with the Father, by whose deity we believe this whole world is created, preserved, and governed. It is now the third year since we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by James, a priest of the true faith, who since has never intermitted from time to time to give us the Body and Blood of Christ. We therefore think it unlawful for us during these three days to stir out of doors: for we abhor the smell of victims with which the whole city is infected.” 

The five young men were converted and baptized, and the seven were all eventually captured, whipped, imprisoned, scourged, tortured, then finally, when they refused to submit to Roman law, crucified:

They all prayed that he would not seek to draw them from the way which Jesus Christ had opened to them. The emperor, whose eyes sparkled with fury, upon hearing this answer, said: “Wretches, you seek death. Your desire is granted, that you may at length cease to insult the gods.” He then commanded that cords should be put across their mouths, and bound round them, and that they should be crucified. The cords were immediately put in their mouths, and fastened tight about their bodies, so that they could only mutter broken words, and not speak distinctly. The emperor ordered seven crosses to be erected over-against the gate of the city. The martyrs were hoisted on their crosses; and at noon several ladies came out of the city, and having bribed the guards with money, obtained leave to wipe the faces of the martyrs, and to receive their blood with sponges and linen cloths. 

Hipparchus died on the cross in a short time. James, Romanus, and Lollianus expired the next day, being stabbed by the soldiers while they hung on their crosses. Philotheus, Habibus, and Paragrus were taken down from their crosses while they were living. The emperor being informed that they were yet alive, commanded huge nails to be driven into their heads. This was executed with such cruelty that their brains were thrust out through their noses and mouths. Maximian ordered that their bodies should be dragged by the feet, and thrown into the Euphrates. But Bassus, a rich Christian, redeemed them privately of the guards for seven hundred denarii, and buried them in the night at his farm in the country. The Acts of their martyrdom were compiled by a priest, who says he was present in a mean garb when the holy martyrs gave their blessing to the citizens.

The ruins of the ancient city of Samosata were visible until the area was flooded by the Atatürk Dam in 1989. Then even the relatively modern city of Samsat was flooded, forcing its residents to relocate. Today, the newest town of Samsat (pictured above) has a population of 2,000. It’s still obscure. Martyrs welcome!