Because of the Preparation

Posted by Webster
My preparation for the Catholic Church took 56 years, Frank’s something more than 40 years. I think that’s what people appreciate about converts. Like good Boy Scouts, we were ready. I thought of this today, as it was my day to serve on the altar and I had the privilege of watching Father Barnes prepare for Mass.

Father is the friendliest of priests, and if you start a conversation with him before Mass, he will not ignore you. But he will bring the conversation to a close as efficiently as possible. This is his time for preparation, and he does it silently. I do not know if every priest approaches the moment of the Mass the same way, but during the eight to ten minutes before the seven o’clock bells ring over St. Mary’s, the sacristy is, true to its derivation, a sacred or holy space.

It’s a joy for me to be there waiting one day a week when Father enters the sacristy, my duties done: I have already set the missal on the altar and prepared the chalice, the gifts, the ewer for washing the priest’s hands. I have lit the candles and turned on the overhead lights in the nave. Oh, and the sound system, I always need to remember to turn on the sound system.

But when Father Barnes arrives, the Tuesday lector, Bill Foley, and I stand still with hands folded and wait as Father vests, with a prayer for each article of priestly clothing. (Or so it seems, his prayers, if any, are silent.) Then a few minutes before the crucifix, where he reviews again the readings and maybe, just maybe, takes a final peek at his Blackberry. Then a final silent minute contemplating the crucifix, until the bells ring and we process into the sanctuary.

These moments of preparation are so important in all aspects of the religious life, aren’t they? Which is why I appreciate having the opportunity to observe Father Barnes at work one day a week. And which is why my many years in the wilderness before being received into the Church are so important to me. I sometimes envy those who were born to the Church, often regret the 56 years I “missed,” not being a Catholic.

But then I see how cradle Catholics envy me! And I remember that the readiness is all, as Hamlet said before dying—and so it is before Mass, or anytime we go before the Lord.

Because Marriage is the Model

Posted by Webster 
Have you ever wondered about the idea of Christ being “married” to His Church, the bridgegroom-and-bride thing? Or about a woman religious being “married” to Christ? I have wondered. The whole notion sometimes seems a bit—what?—intimate to me. But after this weekend, I think I understand it better.

Katie and I had been planning to spend the weekend apart. Her weekends are usually booked solid, starring in our local stage magic phenomenon. When the powers that be announced that there would be no show this weekend, Katie made plans to get away with a couple of girlfriends. After all, my weekends are booked solid too—CL meetings Friday evenings, men’s group Saturday morning, often lectoring, singing with the choir Sundays at 10:30. Oh, and the Patriots game. Had to see that. Probably with Ferde.

But then three things happened. (1) Katie’s plans fell through (girlfriends busy). (2) Katie decided to go away anyway, to my mother’s place in Vermont. (3) Friday morning I said a rosary in front of the Blessed Mother before Mass. . . . And the message came through clearly: Go with Katie to Vermont.

But, your Blessedness . . . I’m booked. Hey, Mother, don’t you understand? I’m booked with church stuff! I can’t just walk out on men’s group or lectoring or choir. And where would I watch the Patriots’ game? Ferde will miss me. . . . Go with Katie to Vermont.

I saw Father Barnes outside of church after Mass and said, sorry, I had to be away, and he—didn’t—even—blink. Have a good weekend, he said. And we did.

It was a great weekend, a weekend we both needed, a weekend that got me thinking: Marriage is the model for our whole Christian life. It’s the ultimate commitment here on this planet. No, we won’t exactly take it with us, the whole domestic conjugal arrangement including cars and dogs, when we move to another world, but for right now and right here, it’s the very last thing.

As I told Father Matthew in a moment of clarity when I was on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey, marriage is the only vow I’ve ever taken, or am ever likely to take.

It’s a model for my life as a Catholic. How many times do I let “being booked” get in the way of prayer, worship, adoration, service? My life fills up so completely with “important stuff” that I lose sight of what’s truly important. Ironically, this weekend my life had filled with church stuff, but thanks to the Blessed Mother, I had a moment of clarity: This is your vow. Be true to it.

Because It’s OK for Catholics to Praise, Sing, Dance, and Laugh (Music for Mondays)

Posted by Webster 
Frank had the conn this weekend (I was in Vermont with Katie), and the results were stellar: I thought I smelled mutiny in the air, but in the end the only smell was victory—for everyone but my New England Patriots. Frank’s post on a hymn by St. Romanus was a winner, to judge by your comments, and it got him searching for more stuff by St. Romanus. He posted this piece on our FaceBook Fan Page, the Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos, Ode 1:
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Last week, Catholic Notebook posted this historic event: probably the first Gospel concert ever in the Netherlands, recorded in Utrecht, November 1962.

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As we say goodbye to the Christmas season, here’s a classic smile from Straight No Chaser, moving ever so slowly from the sublime to the ridiculous (h/t Madame Evangelista):

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And arriving full square at the ridiculous, your humble blogger and Catholic husband thought some might enjoy this bit of comedy from Tim Hawkins (h/t Eric Sammons). . . .

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Because of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I wrote earlier of my thanks for practical instruction on living the Christian life from a lecture I came across in the Liturgy of the Hours written by St. Augustine. I have always been enamored of “how-to” books that cut through the gloss and get straight to the point. For example, the theory on how internal combustion engines work is interesting, but the hands-on stuff you learn from actually tearing apart a motor (and putting it back together again) is invaluable. As I realized from my encounters with Blaise Pascal, and with Thomas à Kempis, and by reflecting on my own life as well, I needed help in this department. Especially regarding my prayer life.

So somewhere along my path to the Catholic Church, I discovered the Desert Fathers. I learned that about the time the Romans stopped killing Christians, some people up and sold all they had and headed for the desert in Upper Egypt to live as hermits for Christ. Some had fled persecution from the Romans too, but after Constantine the Great converted in 313 AD, persecution was no longer the reason to flee.

Leave the world they did. According to the Wikipedia citation, “These individuals believed that the desert life (modeled on the lifestyle of John the Baptist and Our Lord’s forty days in the desert) would teach them to eschew the things of this world and allow them to follow God’s call in a more deliberate and individual way.”

Pictured here is the cover of a delightful book of sayings from some of these hermits, translated and illustrated by by Yushi Nomura. At the time I found it in my local public library, I didn’t know Henri Nouwen from Adam, but he wrote a pretty good introduction explaining the history of this phenomenon and how the roots of Christian monasticism formed in the deserts of Egypt. Find it and enjoy it if you can. My daughter really loves reading it and looking at the illustrations.

Note: I keep writing Christian instead of Catholic because, by this time in my research, I understood that all Christians were Catholic until the Protestant Reformation. Christians who were not Catholic were heretics and, boy howdy, there is a rogues gallery of those! Heck, I’m still learning about them too: Arianism, Albegensianism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and more.

The sayings of the Desert Fathers are very practical and not heretical. And man, they can knock you right off your high horse in a way that makes you say “Thank you sir! May I have another?” Like this:

A monk once posed this question to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.

Did I mention they had a sense of humor? Like here:

In the desert of Skete, a brother went to see Abba Moses for a word. And the old man said, Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

I’m not sure that is what the brother had in mind. Or this one:

If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and pull him back down to earth, because what he’s doing is no good for him.

Amen to that! Replace monk with relative, co-worker, friend, or that fellow in the mirror, and who hasn’t seen that person before?!

The Desert Fathers and Mothers include the following saints: St. Anthony the Great, St. Macarius the Great, St. Arsenius, St. Paul the Hermit, St. John the Dwarf, St. Mary of Egypt, and many others.

Ever been told that you are working too hard at being a good Catholic Christian? See these words and think again:

The reason why we don’t get anywhere is because we don’t know our limits and we’re not patient in carrying on the work we’ve begun. We want to arrive at virtue without any labor at all.

I’ll wrap this post up by letting St. Anthony the Great have the floor,

Once the famous St. Anthony was conversing with some brethren when a hunter who was after game in the wilderness happened by. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves and clucked his tongue in disapproval. Abbot Anthony told him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” He did so. “Now shoot another,” said the abbot. “And another . . . and another.” The hunter complained, “If I bend my bow all the time, it will break.” Abbot Anthony smiled gently as his point stuck home. “It’s that way, too, with the work of God. If we keep pushing ourselves too hard, the brothers will soon collapse.”

This is a marathon, people, not a sprint!


Comments of the Week – Avast there, Skipper!

Posted by Frank

No, it is not mutinous to correct your superior officer when they make a mistake. We consider this counseling our superior officer. You see, Webster pulled the plug early yesterday to head up to Vermont for a semi-long weekend. Trying to beat all the traffic streaming out of Boston, I suspect. So when he posted the Comments of the Week earlier today, he failed to notice that my post on my buddy Blaise Pascal garnered more comments than the Brother Sun, Sister Moon post from earlier this week.
Now, Blaise is a master of probability theory (duh!), and my post on his letter faced long-odds in catching up to BSSM in so short a time, so Webster is excused from missing this development. But let me be Frank (pun intended!) for a second and yell, belay that command, because Blaise and I pulled way ahead of your post Skipper. The YIMC reader base (we few, we happy few) actually, sorry to to say, skunked your post with 34 comments (now 35 thanks to Anthony “Tony” Layne) versus 22 for BSSM. Can you hear the Beach Boys tune Shut Down playing in the background? Forgive me Webster!

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Chalk it up to the subject matter of the posts, which are as different as night is from day. The subject of Blaise’s letter being death. And more specifically death from the Catholic perspective. Admittedly, it is a delicate subject and one for which none of us have all the answers. We are blessed though in that our little community offered up differing perspectives of the mystery of our lives and our eventual deaths.

Reader, and guest poster, EPG writes:

I admit I have my doubts about “the decree of providence” argument, at least to the extent that it applies to the particular circumstances of every death, in time, place and manner. For example, here in Florida, we recently had a notorious case in which a young girl was abducted from her home, raped, and then buried alive by a sexual predator who lived near her. It’s hard to see “the decree of providence” in that.

Perhaps it is better to think that God holds the handlebars of the universe lightly, and that, in creating a universe which included the possibility of free will, he allowed for all sorts of disasters, including room for individuals to commit evil, which may have consequences for those who happen to be near them.

(But then, theodicy (editor: the attempt to justify the behavior of God)is a thorny problem, and I don’t expect any of us to resolve that.)

Perhaps a better response is simply to acknowledge, at least in the case of premature death, that there is no answer except the cross and the empty tomb. Christians have the ability to say at least, “Look, we don’t understand the mystery of suffering and death, but we know that God shared in it on the Cross, and that the empty tomb tells us that death, however painful, does not have the last word.”

An anonymous reader gave us this news to contend with:

Hi, I love your columns and want to know what you would say to a mother whose 4 month old died of SIDS. She does not like to hear “God is in charge. He knew what he was doing when he took your son, or God needed another angel in heaven, or be glad because he has reached his goal with no sin on his soul…these are only driving her away from God.

Whereupon several of you responded in, what I hope, are helpful ways to this tragic, personal, and very particular circumstance. Jan from the blog Runs with Angels offered up these words of advice:

To anon – there is nothing you can say to someone who loses a child, especially unexpectedly. The only effective thing I’ve found is to listen very carefully to what the grieving say and take your cues from that. Always be ready to listen and gently guide through each episode, if you will. The only thing you can truly say is “I’m so very sorry.” Even if that is all you say, over and over, that is really all there is.

And an Anonymous reader offered this:

I understand your pain on losing a baby. If you look at the archives for this blog for Dec 16th, you’ll find a reference to the Youtube clip for “99 baloons” in the comments. Very Inspirational! (even 24 years later) for me. I lost a baby at two days of age – and I realize that losing a child at 4 months is a whole other experience. And I know this because my sister lost a nineteen year old! Please accept my prayers as you fold this tragedy into the tapestry of your life.

Helping one another bear the burdens of the Cross is why we are called to be members of Christ’s body through the Church. Reader “pinksy82″ shared a piece from Anne Dillard while “Athos” sent this link to a helpful little book on the matter which he authored.

The “comment of the week” award goes to Warren Jewell, our own Doctor Mellifluous who, now that I taught him how to cut and paste comments, is really letting us all benefit from his experience of walking along the narrow path of Catholic Christian faith. Warren, take it away:

Father Benedict Groeschel, after nearly dying in an auto-pedestrian accident, wrote that “There Are No Accidents’ – it IS all in God’s hands.

But, if circumstances – the dead child, most movingly – seem harsh, we become tentative to have God the Prime Mover of all, that God would permit, even cause such tragedy. That is an odd kind of arrogant reluctance, coming from souls who still very willingly put up the sins that put the very Son of God, humiliated, beaten and tortured, on His Cross.

And, yet, if in our weak and timid spirits God’s hand cannot seem to directly bring even death, He permits all that comes into motion that yields death, even of His most beloved innocents. Thus, the tortured child then buried alive began a few generations ago in the murderer’s family’s lessening moral strictures on such actions. God was there – He knew where it would lead and He let sinful human free will take its awful course. Then again, without God’s complicity in building me, I would have died before birth, short of say, lungs. It is decidedly a mixed bag, here, time-side, now that we have all sinned and come short of God’s direct Eden-like Presence and loving glory.

I am reminded of our crucified Savior’s words at Luke 13:2-5: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?
I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?
I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

To Christ, there was this aspect to such a judgmental assessment: “Just who the Hades are YOU, to question God’s will with you, you sinners! Get out of His face, and repent or forever die, and leave His infinite will to Him, His eternal choices to Him. You have eyes – SEE – You have ears – LISTEN – and accept whatever the Father gives you that He may save you.”

And, thus does every prayer have its humble completion and move toward sublime perfection in the clause “. . . and Thy will be done.”

Amen! Keep these comments coming as Webster and I keep answering the question Why I Am Catholic to the best of our ability.

While pondering the mysteries of life and death after writing this post and reading these comments, a friend, former comrade-at-arms, and YIM Catholic Face Book fan posted this video of The Verve performing their song Bittersweet Symphony on his Facebook page. Somehow, it seems very fitting that I include it here for your enjoyment and as a conclusion to this homage to our dear readers. May God bless us all, each one of us!

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Because of the Good News XII

Posted by Webster
Other Catholic blogs feature politics. Frank and I agree that we want to focus on our faith experience—which often means choosing the Good News over the not-so-good. Sometimes you have to dig for good in a media-driven world that seems to love the bad, but that’s why you pay us the big bucks, right?

Here are some things that caught my attention this week.

As a volunteer religious ed teacher in my parish, I have been thinking a lot about the Catholic education of children, so it was touching to see this post by The Anchoress, showing Elizabeth in her first communion finery (left). And amusing to read Suzanne Temple’s latest home schooling laugh. Children can teach us so much. They can even lead to our conversion.

Meanwhile, Frank was writing a dynamite post on Pascal’s views on death. The post attracted over 30 equally strong comments. While it is not exactly “good news,” this piece by a mother who lost her autistic son resonated strongly with me in the wake of Frank’s post. And we should never ever forget that miracles really do happen.

One thing you probably won’t see either of us writing about is knitting.

I have been to Lourdes a couple of times but never to Santiago de Compostela (above), on the other side of the Pyrenees. This year might have to be the year, as my daughter is being received into the Church at Easter, and I would love to take her on a celebratory trip. Where better than this Spanish pilgrimage site? When better than a Holy Year? What defines a Holy Year in Santiago de Compostela? That July 25, the feast of St. James, falls on a Sunday. July 25 is my birthday!

Every week—heck, every day—on the liturgical calendar brings us saints and blesseds to contemplate. This week, the one that really caught my eye was Blessed Brother André Bessette. This has led me to plan another pilgrimmage—maybe the first annual YIMC Road Trip?—to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville NY, St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal (left) (“built” by Blessed André), and the Basilica of Saint-Anne de Beaupré in northeastern Quebec. Give me a date to meet in Albany and I’ll rent the minibus.

I will probably not take my daughter to Dubai, not even to see the world’s tallest man-made structure. Didn’t they already make this in a place called Babel?

Undoubtedly, there are Catholics in Dubai, and we may learn about some of them when the Catholicism Project makes its way to screens near us later this year. I’m excited about this movie project. I suspect it will teach us about Catholicism in China, as well, where our fellow worshipers are much more dedicated than the average American Catholic. Even the French, derided as overly secular, know how to stand up for their faith. Out in the American West (not exactly sure where she lives), Jan at “Runs with Angels” was one American Catholic willing to brave the elements to attend Mass.

Here’s another Catholic film to watch for, a biopic of Pope Pius XII (left).

While abortion is the bad-news item of our times, it seems that every week there are indications that the tide is turning. Last week, Frank found evidence that Mexico is making it harder and harder to kill unborn children. This week, Creative Minority Report noted a stunning statistic: the population of abortionists is aging!

In local Boston-area news that’s also universal, a 76-year-old cancer patient from the outlying town of Walpole showed once again that prayer works. What better news is there than that?

Also in Boston, we were cheered to read that the Patriots’ presumed Super Bowl opponent, the New Orleans Saints, is “limping into the playoffs.” Call us presumptious, but who’s going to stop us: the Ravens? the Colts? See you in February. But Webster, I thought you converted because of the Saints?!

Locally, in our parish in Beverly, Massachusetts, the only question is whether to receive communion on the tongue or in the hand. Elsewhere, apparently, there are other things to consider. Check out this new-age ciborium, the subject of a law suit?! (As Frank would say, sheee-eeesh!) Frankly, I’ll always go for the classic model in the hands of Father Barnes.

As Frank would also say, over and out.

Comments of the Week

Posted by Webster 
No post this week drew more comments than the one on “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” Franco Zeffirelli’s film about Francis of Assisi. Most readers loved it, although one decidedly did not. Here are excerpts from four readers.

Amy wrote: “I’ve written before about how this is one of my guilty pleasures—lots of inaccuracies about Francis, very reflective of its own period, but HUGELY influential on me when I was in college. As idiosyncratic as it is, I think that the element of self-sacrifice and single-minded love of Christ, and what happens when you allow that Love to live within and that Voice to rule you, does shine through. See it not as history so much as a meditation.” (Amy’s blog has one of the best titles around: “Charlotte Was Both.”)

Shannon wrote: “In 1980, I spent a summer in Assisi and one of the great delights of the summer was watching the Italian version of the movie, shown on the side of a building near the main square. People talked during the movie, mostly poking each other and pointing out how much older the characters in the crowd looked. It was fun running into shopkeepers who’d been in the movie; I’d seen them so often onscreen, I thought I knew them!”

Grace was the dissenting voice: “I am sorry to add a negative note here, but I thought BSSM was horrible. When I saw it when it came out, I thought it was boring. I was irreligious at the time, and it didn’t prompt me in any way to seek God. Fast forward to when I have converted to Catholicism and show it to my non-Catholic teenage son. He made a disparaging remark about the actor/main character about 10 minutes in and got up and left the room. And I couldn’t blame him one bit. The film makes St. Francis out to be an effeminate (if not homosexual) man. It does the saint—and the Catholic Church—a great disservice because the real Saint Francis was very tough-minded.”

Enbrethiliel over at Sancta Sanctis offered a good perspective: “I remember thinking it was a very simply told tale (for all the lushness of the art direction and cinematography): St. Francis as a child would see him. Brother Son Sister Moon is certainly not as polished or sophisticated as Romeo and Juliet—BUT I think Zeffirelli intended it that way. He believed that when he was in hospital for something, St. Francis visited him in a dream and inspired him to leave his life of sin. It may be that his love for this great saint was very childlike and simple. (Note: if St. Francis and his friends seem effeminate here, that is probably because Zeffirelli was a practicing homosexual before his return to the Church. That he had repented of that didn’t mean traces of it still lingered in his artistic vision.)”

And since many expressed a wish to see the film again, here’s another clip—the final scene between Graham Faulkner as Francis and Alec Guinness (with the entrance of his career) as Pope Innocent III.

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Because of Blaise Pascal’s Letter upon the Death of his Father

Webster has been serving at funerals lately, one in early December and one just a few days ago. And in a prediction that is all too likely to come to fruition, he believes he will attend the funeral of at least one dear friend this year. Reading these posts, I reflect on the fragility of human life and the sudden impact on our loved ones lives when we depart this mortal coil.

A sudden death, an accidental death, the unexpected death is always a shocker. Others are blessed with an illness—or maybe it’s not a blessing, to see the train enter the station that will inevitably bear them away. There is pain, and suffering in the long drawn-out route to eternity. [Read more…]

Because of the Liturgy

Posted by Webster 
I do not think we Catholics can meditate too much on the words of our Pope, Benedict XVI. He is our greatest spokesman. If we could only learn to talk—meaning live—like him, the world would be flooded with converts, I bet.

I thought of this last night on my way to sleep, as I read the early chapters of his Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977 (Ignatius 1998). I came across the following passage about the liturgy, and I was the one flooded. It is typical of much of Benedict’s personal writing, beginning in the concrete and almost childlike, and ending in the universal and wondrous:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Benedictine monk Anselm Schott [left], of Beuron Abbey, translated the missal of the Church into German. Certain editions were in German only; others had a portion of the texts printed in Latin and German; and there were still others in which the complete Latin text appeared with the German text in parallel. A progressive pastor had given my parents their Schott as a gift on their wedding day in 1920, and so this was my family’s prayerbook from the beginning. Our parents helped us from early on to understand the liturgy. 

This section puts me in mind of the new translation of the missal that is causing such a hubbub. Father Barnes calmed my fears over it, and reading about the Schott had the same effect. There have been so many translations of the liturgy in two thousand years, and neither the best nor the very worst wordsmiths on the planet have been able to kill it.

There was a children’s prayerbook adapted from the missal in which the unfolding of the sacred action was portrayed in pictures, so we could follow closely what was happening. Next to each picture there was a simple prayer that summarized the essentials of each part of the liturgy and adapted it to a child’s mode of prayer. I was then given a Schott for children, in which the liturgy’s basic texts themselves were printed. Then I got a Schott for Sundays, which contained the complete liturgy for Sundays and feast days. Finally, I received the complete missal for every day of the year. 

Imagine Catholic parents who so love the liturgy that their children are treated to these many editions as they grow up! But here is where my Pope’s memoir touched me most deeply, because it began to reflect my own experience as a convert—

Every new step into the liturgy was a great event for me. Each new book I was given was something precious to me, and I could not dream of anything more beautiful. 

As a 57-year-old man, I was far too excited to receive my four-volume Liturgy of the Hours from Amazon a year ago! But my Pope means the liturgy of the Mass

It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. 

Have you ever wondered how the liturgy was created?

This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it. The introductory notes informed us about what came from the early Church, what from the Middle Ages, and what from modern times. Not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated, and it was not always easy to find one’s way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one’s own home. 

From the universal back to the specific and childlike: the liturgy was like the home Joseph Ratzinger grew up in!

Naturally, the child I then was did not grasp every aspect of this, but I started down the road of the liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The inexhaustible reality of the Catholic liturgy has accompanied me through all phases of life, and so I shall have to speak of it time and again.

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YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 8

We have just one more chapter, one more week left on GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and it looks like a horse race to decide the next book. Will it be Hillaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies or CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity? Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God could still make a comeback, but Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas has been left at the starting gate. If you haven’t voted yet, please do.

Chapter 8, “The Romance of Orthodoxy”
When I was in boarding school and college, two books defined my thinking about world religions and helped me leave orthodox Christianity in my rear-view mirror: Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Without splitting hairs, I’ll say the two books agree. They agree that all the great religious teachings of the world—all the minor ones, as well—say the same thing, essentially. Christ or Krishna—what’s the big diff?

I am no historian of religion or philosophy, but I’ll bet that these two books, so revered by the adolescent Webster Bull and many other seekers of his generation, helped pave the way for what my Pope has decried as “a dictatorship of relevatism,” notably in his homily at the Mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff, April 18, 2005.

In this chapter, Chesterton meets this problem head-on. Because the problem had already begun to show itself in his time. “A short time ago,” he writes, “Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it . . . ” “Mrs. Besant” would be Annie Besant, grand old lady of the Theosophical Society and an opinion-maker of alternative religious thought at the turn of the last century. (That’s her in high-priestess get-up at left. You can read about her here.)

Chesterton insists that there is a big diff, that the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, the religion most commonly likened to Christianity, is night and day. I’ll list a few bullet points, then turn the discussion over to readers.

  • “The Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them wide open. . . . The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
  • “It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say ‘little children love one another’ rather than to tell one large person to love himself [as Buddhism does]. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.”
  • “By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”
  • “The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet.”
  • “To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals.”

What passages struck you? Or what strikes you about these passages?