For Minor Miracles I

I have never seen a dead woman walk or a blind man restored to sight. But I have seen minor miracles. A skeptic would call them coincidences, or nice moments. That’s OK with me. These moments prove nothing, and they are not my faith, any more than ornaments on a Christmas tree are the tree itself or the base on which it stands.

Nevertheless, each of these moments has stemmed directly from my participation in Catholic life—in my parish, in prayer, in fellowship with Catholic friends. As time goes on, I’d like to share a few of these moments, and I hope readers will share theirs.

Thursday evening, Katie and I attended a charity dinner and auction for our parish school. We have never had children in the school, but I have grown fond of it because I teach an after-school CCD class there one day a week.

Before dinner, while Katie was shopping the silent-auction tables, I saw my friends Jolyne and Joe. Jolyne sits behind me at daily Mass and is a lector on weekends. She has a beautiful voice and a smile to match. Joe, her husband, is a cheerful but frail-looking man of about seventy. Recently, Jolyne told me what many friends in the parish already knew, that Joe has suffered from type-1 diabetes for about thirty years. To me, this explained the frailty and made the cheerfulness all the more remarkable.

Joe had never met Katie before—although, as the story unfolds, you’ll see that this hardly mattered. As I got talking with him, with Jolyne by our side, I discovered that Joe had known Katie’s father, Gene McNiff, very well. Gene died in 1960, when Katie was seven. Katie has loving memories of her father, but details of his life are somewhat sketchy to her and she seldom has an opportunity to talk with anyone who can remember him the way Joe did. I was touched by this coincidence and walked over to where Katie was to invite her to come talk with Joe. “He knew your father—really well,” I said. Katie’s face lit up, and I could see that she really wanted to talk with Joe. I led her over, got them introduced, and then left them to talk together.

A few minutes later, Jolyne found me at the silent-auction tables. Her face was lit up with joy. “This is a miracle,” she said, using the term as loosely as I have in the heading of this post. Then she explained to me what I had not known: About two years ago, as a result of frequent fluctuations in his body chemistry, Joe’s short-term memory suddenly shut down, all at once. From that time on, he could not remember anything recent, although he retained a clear memory of long-past events. As Jolyne and I both looked across the room to where Katie and Joe were still happily talking, nodding energetically to each other, Jolyne said, “It is usually hard for Joe at events like this, not having short-term memory. This is so good for him to have this chance to tell Katie about her Dad.”

From Katie’s smile, I could see that it was good for her too.

Because I Can Always Come Back

In “The Death of a Hired Man,” one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost famously wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.” You can bet Frost wasn’t thinking of the Catholic Church, but he could have been. We are all prodigals, and a loving parent is always waiting at the door.

The poem is a conversation between a farmer and his wife about a hired man, Silas, who has worked for them on and off through the years and has just shown up on their doorstep uninvited. He is asleep in a back bedroom as the couple talks. The wife tells her husband that Silas has come home to die.

I thought of this early Friday morning while stewing in a private matter that periodically gives me some pain. Does it matter what it is? Each of us is, from time to time, and some more often than not, in pain. (Frost looks like he’s in some pain here, doesn’t he?) The pain is often, though not always, self-inflicted. Whether you’re talking about a troubled relationship, a physical illness, financial trouble, an addiction, loneliness that comes from really being alone or just thinking one is—life itself can be pretty miserable.

The door of the Catholic Church is always open, figuratively and often literally, and it offers not just pain relief (spiritual Advil) but something positive to take the place of the pain—something that the pain may be telling us we’re lacking all the time.

There are many things about my church that invite me back again, that tell me the door is always open every time I slip up, every time I fall, every time the pain returns.

The porchlight over the rectory door alongside St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly is always on, 24/7/365. Knowing Father Barnes as I do, you’re probably going to have to knock pretty hard at 3 a.m. to get an answer (he’s still young enough to be a deep sleeper), but I’m willing to bet you could wake him up and the door would open unto you.

Father has taken to sitting on the front steps of the rectory of a morning or, when the summer weather is nice, on a bench in the rectory garden in the high afternoon. His German shorthaired pointer, Finbar, has made a hash of the garden in the past year, even eating the mouse off the statue of St. Martin de Porres, so admittedly the garden in 2009 hasn’t been what it was in 2008. But it’s great to see Father sitting there, and several times I’ve sat down on the steps beside him or hopped the fence to talk with him in the garden about something on my mind.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, is another open door. It’s something that is not that well understood, even among some Catholics, I suspect, but in my eighteen months in the Church I have found great joy, great relief—grace is not too strong a word—in going to confession.

Since I joined the parish, I think the most important thing Father Barnes has done is to open an Adoration chapel in the lower church. In the old days, when five priests lived in the rectory and there were ten masses a weekend, masses would be celebrated here, in what is effectively the basement, and simultaneously in our beautiful main church. Now the lower church is used for men’s group, for other social functions and meetings, and, since July 2008, for Eucharistic Adoration. From 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. the chapel is open, and the sixty hour-long slots are meted out to volunteers. Ferde and I each are signed up for five hours a week. (I signed up for one hour originally, saw Ferde had signed up for five, and decided I could do no less.) Those of us who commit to at least one regular hour make it possible for anyone to drop in whenever the Spirit moves them. This is very important, and I pray that more parishioners will make the commitment to at least one hour a week. You never know when the hired man is going to come home.

The rosary is, for me, another symbol of a door that is always open. Its circular string of beads is a never-ending return to what else but the cross? I usually carry my rosary in my right front pants pocket, whether I’ve said the rosary already or not that day. Its light pressure against my thigh is a constant reminder of the graces that await me the next time I pray.

Sunday Mass—even better daily Mass—is an open door to every hired man looking for home. I experience it this way; it is usually the best hour of my day, an hour I generally do not want to end. Of course, for there to be Mass, even greater sacrifices are needed than the hour here and there from fifty or sixty parishioners needed to keep our Adoration chapel open. Men by the tens of thousands have to give their entire lives to the priesthood. And they do.

I have met many “hired men” in my eighteen months at St. Mary’s. Three striking examples come to mind. There is “Jake,” a man who lives alone and seems quite disturbed. But every Sunday at Mass I see him lighting votive candles before the altar of the Blessed Mother. “Benny,” one of my favorite fellow worshipers at morning mass, seems to be pretty heavily medicated for what he calls ADHD. (It seems to me that he might be suffering from something a bit more serious.) Benny always greets me with a smile on the front steps of church, where he finishes a cigarette after Mass before going back inside to pray alone. “Hal” is a guy I run into at Adoration periodically. Hal, a smart professional, has been out of work for a year in this awful economy; I can see that he is in a lot of pain over this; and still he comes to Adoration one hour a week.

Jake, Benny, and Hal—Webster too—all hired men, all looking to come home.

Robert Frost was not a Catholic. In a mock résumé of his religious career, he called himself “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.” But I have always been touched by “The Death of a Hired Man” in particular and find it quite a religious poem.

Warren, as the farmer is named in the poem, has lost patience with Silas and thinks that Silas’s brother ought to be the one to take him in. It is Warren who says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

Warren’s wife counters, “I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

This to me is grace: something given that I probably don’t even deserve. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the father who greets the child come home. In Frost’s poem, it is the mother. The name of the farmer’s wife is Mary.

For All the Saints: Charles Borromeo

Wednesday we celebrate the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo. I know little about this 16th-century Italian saint. His mother was a Medici. His uncle was the Pope. He jump-started the Council of Trent. That’s about it. What matters to me most about St. Charles is a fraternity of priests founded in 1985, born of an invitation from Pope John Paul II and closely associated with the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation. They call themselves the Fraternity of St. Charles (Borromeo). You can visit their Web site here. There is probably no more beautiful introduction to the Fraternity than this Web page about their missions to Siberia and elsewhere.

Communion and Liberation (CL) is one of the reasons I am a Catholic. Like many things good about Catholicism, I learned about CL through Ferde. Don’t ask me why Ferde became my Virgil, my own personal guide to hell, purgatory, and paradise. One day in early 2008, before I was an “official” Catholic, I think, Ferde invited me to the meeting of a local group (a “School of Community”) of CL, at the rectory, headed by Father Barnes. I went. I stayed.

What is CL? I am still figuring that out. You’ll find no lectures about it here for now. The essence of it, for me, is a certain effort to see one’s life clearly and in a new way, with faith as the point of departure, within the fellowship of a community. I suggest visiting the CL Web site. Like St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, I am truly happy to take part in it.

Because This is My Church II

There are many things I love about my church, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts. This is one of them: the way the setting sun gleams on the red brick façade.

I apologize: My photographic skills are rudimentary, not to mention my camera (iPhone). But coming out of Adoration late this afternoon, I stopped to look at my church and this is a hint of what I saw.

Finished in 1908, this building replaced a wooden structure that had burned down after serving the parish for some 30 years. Now 101 years old herself, St. Mary stands at the center of our town, the true beating heart of the community. Facing west, toward Ward 3, home of the Italian Americans who helped build her and still worship here, St. Mary has been the spiritual home of generations of Catholics in Beverly.

And now it is mine.

For All the Saints: Martin de Porres II

We got a good laugh today from Father Barnes in his homily. He talked of Martin de Porres often being shown with a dog, cat, mouse, and bird at his feet. Mentioned in my previous post, this symbolism suggests the Peruvian saint’s peaceful nature.

In fact, our pastor went on, there is a statue of St. Martin in our rectory garden. The mouse, however, is missing. “My dog ate the mouse,” said Father Barnes. “Which tells you that I still have some way to go.”

For All the Saints: Martin de Porres

Much surely has been made, and will be made again today, of Martin de Porres being the first black saint in the Americas. What gets me instead is the broom (here in a statue from New Orleans) and the dog, cat, bird, and mouse eating from the same dish at his feet (as in other representations of the Lima-born Dominican brother). If I am going to be a saint (and that’s the goal, isn’t it?), what will my statue be holding? What animals will gather at my plaster feet? What colors will stand out in my stained-glass window?

In asking these questions, I am borrowing without permission from a lovely concert Sunday evening by Boston-area musician Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, highlighted in my previous post. At the beginning of her “Cloud of Witnesses,” Wolfe spoke of sainthood and our calling to it. It is not about perfection, profession, or personality, she said; becoming a saint is only about progress. Then she asked just this question about our statue and our stained-glass window: what symbols will they contain, what colors will brighten them? In other words, what will symbolize my particular charism? I’ve been thinking about this for the past day or so. (This post began to take shape at 1:30 Tuesday morning.)

Katie and I are not animal people particularly, so I’m pretty sure birds will not be nesting in my hair. I will not be holding a small plastic bag and following around a nonexistent puppy I am currently too busy, too self-involved to walk two or three times a day. We did have a cat once, named Smokey, but after that loving, three-legged (long story) feline was buried under the tree in our yard, Katie and I did not rush out to buy another pet. Still haven’t.

A broom would not be out of the question, where my saint statue is concerned. For twenty-five years, I was a card-carrying member of “Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company,” a widely known resident stage magic show playing right here in Beverly, Massachusetts. Still playing, still featuring Katie, though I am no longer in evidence. As such, I did a lot of sweeping of popcorn and much mopping of Coke spills. I can say with complete honesty that I enjoyed cleaning the floors of the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, where LGD and company still perform. But I do not believe this qualifies me for canonization.

What is my charism? What symbolizes my particular calling? What is my gift? I’m pretty sure that the answers to these questions are elusive to most people. Especially when I think of the gospel for today. Jesus tells a parable of a man who invited several people to supper. But each invited guest had invested himself in something worldly—a business, a field, a wife—and passed up the chance to dine with the Lord. Especially today, we think of our gifts in worldly terms: our talents, crafts, trades, arts, professions. These are important, just as the color of Martin de Porres’s skin is important. But I don’t think these investments add up to a charism. I think they may even distract us from our true gifts—or from our true opportunities for giving. As a result, we miss out on dinner.

In my case, I can become focus wrongly, I think, on what has become my profession, more or less: writing. Although I’ve done other things (including sweeping theatres) it is fair to say that, in the course of a checkered career, I have earned more income from, have added more value with, writing than with any other talent. But—and this just occurred to me at 2:09 by the clock on my MacBook Pro—what has always mattered is not the writing itself (I am no Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor) but what the writing served. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that service is central to sainthood.

Now I’m going to leave that thought right there and see if I can’t sleep a few more hours, then finish this post at dawn, when most of my best thoughts are usually waiting for me anyway. . . .

5:40 by the computer clock . . . Nothing brilliant to report so let’s just keep banging . . .

I hated writing in high school and college. It was something I had to do to get a grade, like going to a job you don’t like for the paycheck at the end of the week. In fact, I discovered my talent, if talent it is, while working with Le Grand David and company on Cabot Street. In our first years as a troupe, we had quite a collection of talented people: performers, musicians, carpenters, painters, seamstresses—but not one committed writer. And if there’s anything a theatre company on the make needs it’s words, publicity, PR. I was put in charge of the biweekly newsletter, our organ of PR, and soon realized it was much easier to publish a biweekly newsletter if you had something to say, and especially someone to say it. I looked around the landscape, saw no writers, and thought, the only solution is to write myself. And so I began.

I found I liked writing—when it served this purpose that I believed in fully, working with friends to build an internationally respected theatrical adventure.

Cut to the mid-1980s. Katie and I married, Martha arrived, Marian was on the way, and I wanted to have my own business, a source of income under my control with which to feed and especially educate our children. And I thought of my grandfather, Daniel Bull, who had written his own memoir at age eighty, and (longer story) I started a business called Memoirs Unlimited to help elderly people write and publish their life stories.

This was probably the greatest creative leap in my entire life. I basically started a new business model: Find clients (that was the hard part), interview them about their lives, edit the interviews into narratives, and publish those narratives in handsome but simple private volumes, usually for family and close friends.

The point of this (getting long-winded here, at dawn) is that my writing was put to the service of others. The cool thing was/is, I was/am good at it. And some pretty small-m miraculous things came to me and to my clients as a result.

Cut to the present. Cut to Webster, the Mad Catholic Blogger. Another case of writing that, if it is to have any whiff of holiness, must be in service to something other than Webster, the Mad Catholic Blogger and his dreams of empire. With help from hard knocks, this is a litmus test that I am beginning to learn to apply. For this, my blogging, to “work” it must be truthful and it must be a positive expression of my experience as a Catholic.

In a recent e-mail, dear Father Danielsen expressed my current calling, my charism (if that’s what it is) in a simple statement: “Catholics in the U.S. and around the world certainly aren’t getting much good press these days so someone who writes interestingly and convincingly about why he is Catholic is a blessing to us all.”

I can’t take credit for having set out with that intention. But if my writing serves that purpose, then that should be enough for me. And someday, perhaps on a small private family altar, in the best Asian tradition, there will be not a statue or a stained-glass window but simply a black-and-white photograph of The Old Man hunched over his MacBook Pro, knocking out another thousand words for God.

Thanks to Joan, Again

Joans played an important role in my becoming a Catholic. The biography of Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville West opened my eyes in the 1970s. Next came Joan of Arcadia, the teen who talked to God in prime time from 2003 to 2005. But just as important was Joan of Beverly, a seventy-something mother of seven who was my sponsor in RCIA.

I entered RCIA in the fall of 2007 and found, along with about eight students, another eight or so “team members” volunteering to help us learn about the faith. Joan was one of these, and in a matter of weeks I gravitated toward her enthusiasm, and I think she gravitated toward mine. For many months, until sometime in early 2009, we sat on opposite ends of the same pew at daily mass, and our friendship grew. But then Joan was diagnosed with cancer, and she disappeared from the daily scene for surgery, chemo, radiation—the whole nine yards.

I’m not proud that I let her drop off my radar for a while, but about three months ago I decided enough was enough and gave her a call. Since then I have visited her usually one afternoon a week, for ninety minutes or so. We shoot the breeze, catch up on our respective families, and talk about our faith. We are roughly twenty years apart in age, but Joan is like a sister to me, a wise older sister.

Sunday evening, I drove Joan to a dinner concert by Boston-area singer Jaymie Stuart Wolfe entitled “Cloud of Witnesses.” It was something like the sixteenth annual concert by Wolfe given in the barn at Brooksby Farm in Peabody. About a hundred people were there for the home-cooked meal, followed by concert and mass. Included in the throng were Jaymie’s husband and their eight children, three of whom performed Irish step dancing to one of Wolfe’s songs. I was frankly spellbound, making the hazy iPhone photo above a perfect image of the evening.

Which is a little hard for me to fathom. As little as three years ago, before I began taking Catholicism seriously, I would have been very skeptical about a faith-filled event like this. Sunday evening I was swept away.

The concept of the concert was simple. For All Saints Day, Wolfe took as her text the Gospel for the day, the Beatitudes, and selected a saint or two for each of the eight verses. She talked about each saint, then sang a related song. Think about it for a second: Which saints would you say best represent (1) poverty of spirit, (2) mourning, (3) meekness and humbleness of heart, (4) hungering and thirsting after righteousness, (5) mercifulness, (6) purity of heart, (7) peacemaking, and (8) being persecuted for righteousness’s sake?

While you’re thinking up your own answers, take a look at my first post, from back in August, in which I wrote about how important the saints were in my own conversion. 

Now that you’re back, here are my notes from Jaymie’s concert. They are fragmentary, but mostly self-explanatory and, at least for me, they contain several beautiful nuggets of wisdom.

Poor in spirit—Francis of Assisi. The only thing we can really spend is our lives. Poverty of spirit is to know you need God. [Chorus from song] “Better a fool in the house of the living God than a king over all the earth.”

Mourn—Augustine and especially Monica, who grieved over a son who was lost. Prayer matters. Prayer changes us. Prayer draws us and others to God. [Song title] “Become What You See.”

Meek and humble of heart—Francis de Sales (left). Died 1622. Archbishop of Geneva who never lived in Geneva! Hot tempered yet gentle. Controlling temper once he said, “Would you have me lose in ten minutes what it has taken me twenty years to gain?” The difference between a reaction and a response is three seconds. Embracing a low and little way. The little virtues open the door to all the rest. “Take the little way instead of striving for things that look glorious.”

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness—Teresa of Avila. The woman with manly virtues. Grew up with ten brothers. Public face of her convent for twenty years. After which she thought, I have never yet prayed. “Lord, I’m not leaving until you change me!” In your 20s you think you can change others. In your 30s you think you can change yourself. In your 40s you realize you can’t do either. 

Merciful—Faustina. Received a vision of Jesus as mercy itself. “Jesus, I trust in You.” Trusting my holiness to him.  

Purity of heart=single-heartedness, a heart set on God—Two examples: Maria Goretti, [one of the] youngest canonized, and Therese of Lisieux, who didn’t start off so wonderful—a brat with tantrums. Stopped looking in mirror, started looking for God in little things.

Peacemaker—St. Patrick, made peace with God after being sold into slavery. Escaped then used his freedom to return to the people who had enslaved him.

Persecuted for righteousness’s sake—Edith Stein (left), raised a Jew, then atheist philosopher. Read the biography of Teresa of Avila and said, “This is truth.” Nazis came to power, she became a Carmelite nun, wore a Jewish star on her habit. Was arrested, sent to Auschwitz. Her last words: “Let us go for our people.”

[Then a seemingly unrelated note at the end] Your spouse is your altar. Lay your life down in your marriage.

 I returned home to find Katie waiting up for me, with a smile as always. Thanks again, Joan!

For My Father, Saint or Soul

For the first 56 years of my life, not one member of my family died, other than grandparents. In March 2008, I was received into the Catholic Church, and six months to the day afterward, my father died. Dad had become my best male friend, so I lost that too. You might say the Catholic Church didn’t bring me the best of luck.

As we move from All Saints to All Souls, from the brightness of an autumn Sunday in New England into the murky unknown of Monday at the start of a new week, I am thinking a lot about my father as both saint and soul. At his funeral, in the Episcopal church I attended as a youth, Dad’s last pastor eulogized him as a “saint,” a term that surprised even those who loved him best. Dad probably would have been appalled. He didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, didn’t engage in heroic acts of charity or kindness, didn’t stray far from the comfortable confines of the home he loved sharing with Mom and their socially inept Abyssinian cat, Dodger (orange-ish blob in photograph, hogging center stage). Yet Father Alves told stories of my father’s final days in a hospice, of their last conversations, and of Dad’s interactions with the nursing staff which, combined with Dad’s staunch support for his parish, added up to at least the suggestion of saintliness.

One “saintly” story here: Dad was a business executive, first in the hot cereal business, later in cookies and crackers. He loved the fact that the companies he worked for made simple foods, mostly baked from grains grown in the heartland where Dad was born. A few days before his death, a Jamaican hospice nurse wearing a boldly colorful headwrap entered and asked Dad what he had done for a living. Without a pause, and in all sincerity, Dad said, “I was a cook.” The lady didn’t believe him. “Oh, Mr. Bull,” she said, “I bet you were much more important than that. What did you cook?” Again, Dad’s answer was as immediate as it was honest: “I cooked American foods.”

In his homily for All Saints Day, Father Barnes spoke about a couple of saints he had known: a retired Maryknoll Father with whom he had shared lodgings as a young priest and a Sister of Notre Dame at whose funeral Father had recently concelebrated. Neither of these was a great saint, a saint noted on the liturgical calendar; both were quiet saints, invisible saints working in small corners with great faith. If my father was any kind of saint at all, he was like that: quiet and all but invisible.

If Dad was a saint, he was also a soul, of course, and is a soul. The Catholic Church teaches that many good but imperfect souls go to purgatory. I do not understand purgatory. I do not understand heaven or hell either, for that matter. So I cannot speak with the confidence that e. e. cummings seems to have had when he wrote, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by/herself)have/one.” A saint or not, Dad going straight to heaven (or a heaven of his own) is not my call, but I am comfortable thinking of Dad in purgatory, where God now has a chance to finish, to perfect him. I don’t think Dad was that far from perfection for an ordinary God-fearing father of six, always true to his one wife and most of what he believed in. I am heartened thinking that my prayers for him on All Souls’ Day might be efficacious. It makes me realize that I am a Catholic not only because of my father, as I’ve written previously, but also for my father.

Hard as it was to lose Dad, I felt a deep-down conviction that he was fine, in God’s hands now. And I have my faith to thank for that. I was “lucky” after all. Two months before he died, I wrote Dad a long letter. In it I explained this conviction, saying I did not know where Dad would go when he died, but given the goodness of God, I was sure it would be a good place, a place where Dad would be reunited with his own beloved parents.

Dad and I never talked about that letter afterward, but by then it was hard for him to talk about such things while keeping a rein on his emotions. I do believe that Dad is quite deservedly in a better place, and tomorrow, on All Souls Day, I will pray for him, and for the souls of other dear departed friends and family members: Ruthie, Gene, Ammie, Grampa, Granddad Ewing, Maggie, Barry, Ellen, Kevin, Grandad Bull, Grandma Bull, Helen D’Orio, Sr. Marguerite, Heidi’s Mom, Dr. Bassage . . . . Saints and Souls, souls and saints, on and on and on—the one feast blends into the other, and we are all together in the end—or so we all can pray.

Because the Poor and Meek are Blessed

I arrived at men’s group Saturday in blue blazer, fresh shirt, gray slacks, brown Oxford shoes. I was on my way to an interview with an important man about an important project, and my clothes were important to match. I was pretty puffed up. By the time I left men’s group, I felt cut down to size.

Men’s group may be the butt of jokes, at least among some women in the parish, and I have made light fun of it in other posts, including this one. There is a certain amount of oxygen wasted nearly every week arguing issues that are fundamentally unarguable; there is some ruffling of feathers, some strutting and posturing as among fighting cocks.

But men’s group also has a way of bringing me up against myself in a way that nothing else in my church week does, not even confession. And for that, as well as for the pure fellowship, I return as often as I can.

This is partly because Ferde is the founder and the sitting president of men’s group—although next week some of us will put our names into a hat to replace Ferde, as well as Jonathan, our secretary. They have served long (and well) enough. It is time for a couple of other guys to preside, make the coffee (the president’s chore), and organize the agenda (the secretary’s).

Being at any table where Ferde presides is like sitting in the presence of an Old Testament judge. Ferde brooks no nonsense, and the meeting moves along purposefully under his gaze. It starts on time. It ends on time. Add to this the fact that Ferde is my dear friend but also in some ways my conscience, and when I slip up, as I have in a certain recent post (don’t ask), Ferde lets me know it in uncertain terms. I am just unsure enough of my standing as a recent convert, also just proud enough of my standing as a recent convert with a blog, that I alternately quail and bristle when Ferde glares. Please don’t tell him I said so.

But there’s much more to men’s group than Ferde. In some ways, it’s like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, without Snow White (Ferde does not qualify, just look at that picture again). Grumpy, Doc, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Sleepy are all very much in evidence. This week, having been up since 3 a.m., I was Sleepy, but I can be any of the seven on any given Saturday.

A better analogy, however, is the Disciples at the Sermon on the Mount: poor, mournful, meek, hungry, thirsty. This is us: a group of utterly ordinary men, in ordinary clothes (except for me this Saturday), struggling with the basic human efforts of listening, sharing, and accepting each other’s foibles—all the while seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. 

This week the presenter was Bob, a man I have grown increasingly fond of, largely because we attend School of Community together on Friday evenings (the meeting of Communion and Liberation in our parish). We also see each other frequently at daily mass. Bob’s topic was grandiose, The Nature of Human Evil, but his presentation was anything but. It was humble (in the finest sense of the word), it was grippingly personal, and it was interrupted by an unforgettable moment of emotion that charged the church basement where we meet with an undeniable force. It was powerful theater, completely unpremeditated, and you could just feel the entire table around which we sat grow smaller as each man’s attention focused in on Bob and what he was expressing eloquently.

I pride myself on my presentations at men’s group, with pride being the operative term. I have spoken on St. Thomas More, St. Joan of Arc, the Carthusians, Dorothy Day, the Turin Shroud, Pope Benedict, and this blog. My presentations are polished, like my shoes this morning. They are crisp, like the crease in my trousers.

But every one of them has fallen short of the humanity we all experienced this morning. Bob is a man seemingly without pretensions, who once studied for the priesthood but chose the vocation of family instead. In whose presence this morning I felt briefly the glow of goodness and the grace of my own fleeting humility.

I’ll be back next week, though I’m not sure yet whether to put my name in the hat. It is a big responsibility, filling Ferde’s shoes, and I am not being ironic.

To Become a Child Again

This morning, by chance, by grace, I remembered again why I am a Catholic. I can hear the chorus: More than 80 posts in 10 weeks about YIM Catholic and you can’t remember? Dear Webster, Are you losing your mind?! The short answer to which is, there’s remembering and there’s remembering.

Jesus tells us that unless we become like little children, we’re going to have trouble storming the gates of heaven. Problem is, we all become “adults” in the faith so fast, even us converts. Everything gets old. Routine sets in. But this morning I was a child again, thanks to my never-failing friend Ferde.

At St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, we have three regular adult altar servers for morning mass, but one is in her ninth month of pregnancy and another recently broke her arm. So Frank, the third morning server, suggested that Ferde and occasionally Webster fill in. This means training for Webster, so this morning, Ferde—who usually serves only for funerals and other special occasions, why waste his talents as a lector?—walked me through Altar Server 101: where everything is kept in the sacristy, where to set it in the sanctuary, when to light the candles and turn on the overhead lights, and so on.

Then, and this was the beauty part, to watch Ferde closely while he went through his paces during mass, I sat on the Epistle side of the nave, not in the sixth row on the Gospel side, where I routinely sit. Here, closer to St. Joseph (left), I had a better angle on the action.

The freshness, the beauty, the naked thrill of learning to be a Catholic all came back to me, in a series of flashbacks to my first days in this church when, even before I entered RCIA, I sat on this side of the nave—until my troubles with Fr. Charles’s accent sent me over under the pulpit, where I could more easily read his lips.

I used to come very early, when the church is dark and only Flo and Frank and two or three others are here, each alone in his or her quiet conversation with God, telling the beads, silently moving the lips. I had come early again this morning, to be schooled by Ferde, and even after the lesson, there were still twenty minutes to go before seven o’clock mass by the time I had settled on the Epistle side. This morning, I felt traces of that predawn stillness I had once felt when I arrived, a newcomer, at six-fifteen or even six o’clock.

I pulled out my rosary beads and I remembered: Two years ago, my only experience of the rosary was a memory of joining in with chanting thousands at Lourdes nearly forty years ago. Two years ago, I still thought that the second half of the Hail Mary began “Hail, Mary,” instead of “Holy Mary.” I knew nothing about the Mysteries we are invited to meditate on as we pray. I had yet to memorize the “Hail, Holy Queen” or the “Oh, my Jesus.” But for some reason, on my second or third morning in this church, Father Barnes (left) spoke of the rosary from the pulpit, urged us to say the rosary daily, and said, “If you don’t know how, Google it.”

I Googled it. Then I went to Amazon.com and bought a rosary with wooden beads, something like this one. And I bought a couple of booklets on the rosary, this one, I think, and this one. And I waited excitedly for the UPS driver, the way I once awaited a shipment of Sea Monkeys.

These details don’t really matter. What mattered today—again—was the sudden inrush of innocence I experienced, the joy again of becoming Catholic. When and where did I start to lose that? Definitely by the time I considered myself too busy with an important book project to arrive at mass much more than five minutes before the hour. But probably long before that. By pieces, by tiny pieces.

I have to start coming early to mass again, though I’m sure even this will become old. I’m going to have to start tricking myself somehow. Or making extra efforts. Or somersaulting up the aisle to my pew, while chanting a Hail Mary. I’m not sure what will keep the child inside me alive so that I can continue to live my faith with the joy and purity I once experienced every morning. But I’m going to do my best to figure it out.


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