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 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.

Because of Joan of Arcadia VI

There is a moment in season 1, episode 9 of “Joan of Arcadia” that chills me to the bone. Joan is in history class; the subject is the Hundred Years War; the teacher flashes an image of Joan of Arc on the screen. Joan Girardi, typical teen, looks up with a sudden shock of recognition: Me—a saint—the same?!

This moment gets at the essence of this show and why we care about saints, too. For this moment, a saint is not a story from a book, not even a real person whose exploits are too far above modern-day Joan to matter. For this moment, the saint is Joan’s sister. The saint is Joan, the saint is Joan herself.

This is why the saints matter. This is why this silly melodrama about a teenage girl who talks to God still matters to me.

I suspect this episode (“St. Joan”) or the one before it (“The Devil Made Me Do It”) ran during November sweeps. Because with these two stories, the series really hit its stride, taking on questions too serious for most family-night TV watching in contemporary America. What a pity.

In episode 8 (“The Devil Made Me Do It”), God poses an impossible dilemma for Joan. Appearing as a power-walking woman whom Joan meets on her way to school, God tells Joan to help out with the high school art show. The reason seems harmless enough: “Be more physically active!” God chirps. “A happy outlook is all about endorphins.” The Sermon on the Mount it’s not. But when Joan walks into the art room, God walks in, this time as a security guard, and says He would rather Adam’s art was not part of the show.

Adam is Joan’s lovable friend, a talented abstract sculptor whose precocious work is all done in memory of his late mother. God asks Joan to see that Adam’s work is not part of the show? How could that be just? Why would God do that? For the remainder of the show—which includes a surprise encounter with Grace’s rabbi (!) father (who knew Grace was Jewish?!)—Joan has to wrestle with a key question: Would God ever tell her to do something evil? If not, how can Joan know that God is God, and not the devil in disguise?

The rabbi gives one answer : Our own inclination to evil, he says, comes between us and God. This inclination thrives on “moral confusion.” What to do? “Confuse the confuser.”

The priest who has been counseling Joan’s mother has a different take:

Joan: So the devil really exists?
Priest: Yes, but one of his tricks is to get people to believe he doesn’t exist. Or to take on the guise of our Lord. 
Joan: The devil imitates God?
Priest: In essence. 
Joan: Is he any good?
Priest: Very good. In fact, in the Book of Revelation it tells us that when the Antichrist first appears, the godly may be fooled. 
Joan: Yeah, like when you first hear Dave Matthews and think he might be good, but he’s not. 
Priest: I don’t know who that is. 

In the end, Joan simply does not know how to follow God’s directive. When Adam wins the art show and sells his piece for $500, he decides to use the prize as seed money to leave school for a full-time art career. Joan realizes this is a terrible mistake, that Adam is not mature enough yet, that he will be lost. She goes to the art room and smashes Adam’s sculpture. Adam remains in school (good), but Adam says he will never be Joan’s friend again, if he ever was (bad).

A final encounter with God (the power-walker again) provides the complex moral of the story:

Joan: I’m having second thoughts about you.
God: It’s called a crisis of faith. It’s all right. It’s not really faith if there’s no crisis. Faith is an act of will, not a feeling.
Joan: How do I know you’re not the devil? . . .
God: I understand you’re confused, but there are no dilemmas without confusion, there’s no free will without dilemmas, and there’s no humanity without free will. 
Joan: You know, I don’t understand what you’re saying. It’s all just blah, blah, blah. . . . 
God: You’re confused because I asked you to do something you thought was wrong.
Joan:  I tried talking Adam out of it. I tried buying it. I tried stealing it. What else is there? You wanted me to smash it?
God: Don’t blame me for your failure of imagination. What you have to ask yourself is, what are you going to do now? Every new decision is another chance to do the right thing. You don’t get that from the other side.

Episode 9 (“St. Joan”) presents another central question in our search for God—not what if God is the devil in disguise, but what if faith is delusional? Joan’s history teacher asserts that while legend has it that Joan of Arc talked to God, “Sigmund Freud would have given Joan’s parents a different explanation: paranoid schizophrenia with a messianic complex.” For the rest of the episode, while a plot involving the history teacher unfolds, Joan will repeatedly ask herself, “I’m not crazy, am I?”

Tree-surgeon God tells Joan, a C student, to get an A on her next history test. As usual, Joan takes God at his word and reads several books on Joan of Arc to prepare. When Joan gets an A+, evil vice principal Gavin Price demands that she retake the test, because she must have cheated. Grace Polk (feminist firebrand, daughter of Rabbi Polanski) takes Joan’s case to the barricades, organizing a student strike over this terrible injustice. Joan gets swept up in the strike—until God intervenes.

God: About this revolution, cut it out. This wasn’t part of the plan.
Joan: What do you mean? I’m taking a stand. It’s perfect. 
God: You do know the end of Joan’s story. . . . 
Joan: They don’t burn people anymore, do they? Especially not kids?
God: I’m not really here to discuss martyrdom with you, Joan. Like most things having to do with me, it’s complicated. Retake the test. 
Joan: What?!
God: Retake the test. . . . Here’s the thing you need to learn from the martyrs, Joan: They did it the hard way. That’s what I’m asking of you.

God’s intervention makes for a minor miracle. Joan’s history teacher, we learn, gave up a promising music career to go into education, but he began “mailing it in” years ago, “a teacher’s greatest fear.”

Teacher: Before this event, I was going to quit. This was going to be my last year. It was causing me a lot of pain. I was surrendering in defeat, like the French at Agincourt, floundering in the mud of my students’ indifference. But I made you care about history, Miss Girardi. I don’t know how I did it, but I did, and that’s the whole point! You inspired me to take back my crown. I thank you.
Joan: You have no idea how incredibly cool this is. 
Teacher: Oh, yes I do. 

Next week: “Drive, He Said” and “The Uncertainty Principle”

To Read this Entire List of Catholic Fiction!

Thanks to Karen for forwarding this list of Catholic fiction from Amazon, in response to my post earlier today. Your further comments are welcome here or there.

Survey #3: Because of What Catholic Fiction?

A few weeks back I asked readers to cite poems that have inspired them. The results, summarized a few days later, sent me off in search of verse by Donne, Thompson, Yeats, and Auden. Next, I asked for hymns, and because my knowledge of music is even poorer than my knowledge of poetry, I let the comments at the bottom of this post serve for summary.

It’s time for Catholic fiction. Having explained why I found Kristin Lavransdatter moving and Brideshead Revisited seriously amusing, I am now on the hunt for inspiring fiction written by Catholics. Any Catholic fiction will do, as long as it inspires, as long as it makes a man or woman say, “Yeah, a Catholic wrote that, and I’m proud to say I’m a Catholic too.”

Meanwhile, I’m going to settle down with a library copy of In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden, because two of you recommended it today.

Because the Holy Ghost Over the Bent World Broods

I was really, seriously thinking about throwing this blog overboard a couple of days ago. It’s a long story, but I wrote the short form to a friend last night: I have been trying to navigate past shoals inner and outer. It is hard to avoid capsizing a tiny vessel like this. You want to keep it real, but you have to keep it confidential as well, all the while holding your inner demons at bay. We all have them, I imagine. I know I do. I know it now.

Enough mystery: Yesterday morning, I was really down about it all—loving the writing, hating much else about the process. I had sworn to at least one beloved person in my life: That’s it! Final post! I’ve had it. Then I received an e-mail from an American woman I will call Roberta.

Roberta wrote me a few weeks back about her struggles with the Church, which were effectively political. She loves the Church, but can’t understand the attitudes of many within the Church. Yesterday morning, as I was writing my blogger’s suicide note in my mind, Roberta wrote that she had begun attending daily mass again—because of this blog. I was flabbergasted. Then I began blubbering.

My poor daughter Martha: She and I had a 1 pm phone appointment to discuss a book project we are co-authoring, but the moment I said hello, she knew I was in trouble. By that time, sandbagged by Roberta and beset with memories of my father, together with missing my daughters, and so on and so on in a sort of emotional avalanche, I was a basket case. Fortunately, Martha understands her dad pretty well.

But really: What do you call that force that sends that e-mail from Roberta just when it is most needed by a hysterical male blogger halfway across the country? I’m just crazy enough, just Catholic enough to think that you call it the Holy Spirit, which in Hopkins’s beautiful poem

. . . Over the bent 
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

To Spend the Rest of My Life Reading Books Like This

During my 40 years in the wilderness, reading was a mostly desultory pursuit. I went through a Dickens kick, a Civil War period, a David Foster Wallace frenzy, and a time of pure adoration for Norman Maclean. But there was no aim, no theme to my reading. It was like belonging to a Book-of-the-Month Club in which each season’s selections are chosen at random. By contrast, in the two years since I entered RCIA, I have read almost nothing but Catholic subjects. I’m pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life doing more of the same.

And yet if you had told me five or ten years ago that Catholicism was intellectually appealing, I’m not sure I would have followed. I thought of it as devotional, as something you do. I saw all those Catholics crossing Cabot Street on their way into Mass every Sunday and I thought rosary—confession—novenas (whatever those were). I was married to a Catholic (still am through God’s grace and Katie’s graciousness), but I had no idea what it might actually be like to be a Catholic.

I certainly never imagined it would be like the most exciting week in my life, the week I still dream about frequently: my first week as a freshman in college. All those books, and all the time in the world to read them! Forget Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the latest essay in First Things. What I love is, all that Catholic fiction! Some I have read: Kristin Lavransdatter, the Father Brown mysteries of Chesterton, selected stories by Flannery O’Connor, Mariette in Ecstasy. But so many I still have left to read: anything by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Chronicles of Narnia, and until today at lunchtime, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. 

Webster Discovers America! I know I am probably one of the last adult Catholics in the old British Empire who had neither read nor watched Brideshead Revisited until today. I finished the book at one o’clock. Tomorrow the DVDs arrive from Amazon.

A book like Brideshead makes me tickled to be a Catholic. Several readers of this blog suggested it to me, as had a couple of Catholic friends previously, but somehow I associated it with everything overly serious about Masterpiece Theater. Jeremy Irons never appealed to me, although he was pretty funny as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. (“You’re a very strange man, Mr. von Bulow!” “You have no idea.”) It was finally George Weigel’s writeup in Letters to a Young Catholic that sent me out to Borders looking for Brideshead. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it is a “Catholic novel” that I wanted to begin re-reading the moment I had finished the last page. Though I’m lazy enough to wait for the DVDs.

What kind of Catholic novel is Brideshead Revisited? A very sneaky one. You’re nearly a quarter of the way through it before Waugh offers any details about the religion of the family at the heart of the novel, the Marchmains, whose country seat is known as Brideshead. On page 86 in my edition, the narrator says of his Oxford chum Sebastian Marchmain, “Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear.”

If Waugh was in any sense evangelizing why did he ever pick such an unorthodox family as Catholic exemplars? Sebastian—a confirmed drunk who carries a stuffed animal around Oxford with him—is not only the most eccentric but, for narrator Charles Ryder, the most compelling of the Marchmains. It is Ryder’s love for Sebastian (love, apparently, in all its forms) that leads him to Brideshead and his encounter with Catholicism. Though he doesn’t realize that this is what he is encountering until almost the very end of the novel—after he has fallen in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia and the two have divorced their respective spouses in order to marry. By this time, Sebastian has died of disease somewhere in Africa, tended by monks who refused him admission as anything other than a menial laborer. His younger sister, Cordelia, who may still end in a convent, reports that Sebastian ended his life somewhere between an alcoholic stupor and spiritual ecstasy. 

In the final chapter of the narrative (a prologue and epilogue frame the main story), Lord Marchmain, father of the family, comes home to die. Here—for the three other English-speaking Catholics who have not read Brideshead—I will leave off telling the tale and beg you to read it for yourself. The love between Charles and Julia must bow to a greater Love, and there is perhaps a suggestion in the epilogue that, despite a deep skepticism flashed throughout the novel, Charles himself may be on his own winding road to Rome. There are better, deeper surprises.

I suspect that the majority of those who have loved this novel have not even been Catholics. George Orwell was one of them, calling Waugh “as good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable positions.” But for the Catholic minority of readers, few books could be as entertaining, thought-provoking, or pride-inducing. At least that’s how I felt: seriously amused, perplexed, and proud.

Because a Tornado is Coming

Katie and I rarely go to the movies, so when I proposed a movie date Saturday night and she counterproposed the new Coen Brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” I jumped at the chance. I know it’s hardly the latest film to open, but I no longer imagine I’m in the cultural avant garde. Thank God.

Spoiler alert: It’s hard to talk about this film without discussing the ending, exactly the way you can’t look seriously at your life without thinking about how it will end.

Catholic alert: This is a Jewish movie, which may be why it has received scant mention in the Catholic press. This is a pity, because this is a serious movie about religious faith and culture. The filmmaking brothers Coen are children of Abraham. Whether they are in any sense observant Jews today would be hard to say, judging by the movie. Yet from the opening scene—a prologue in Yiddish, involving a dybbuk who appears in an Eastern European shtetl of a previous century—we are clearly dealing with a film made by Jews about Jewish culture.

Then why did it hit so close to home for me, a Catholic convert?

From the shtetl of the prologue we move to the suburbs of America circa 1967, or shortly after Jefferson Airplane released their first major hit, “Somebody to Love,” which has a pivotal place in the film. The serious man is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor teaching Heisenberg’s uncertainty priniciple, whom we first see undergoing a chest x-ray. We soon learn that Larry is coming up on both his tenure hearing and his son’s bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, Larry’s life is falling apart. His wife has announced that she is leaving him for another man, Sy Ableman. Sy Ableman?! he asks. We’ve been having problems, you and I, his wife says. Yeah, but Sy Ableman?!

Sy is a newly sensitized modern man, sporting a full beard, a natty tam o’shanter, and powder-blue sportswear. He arrives at Larry’s house for a man-to-man talk bearing the anesthetics of contemporary life: good wine and psychobabble. His first gesture is to hug Larry. In a later scene, where Larry’s wife is present, Sy places his hairy hand thoughtfully on Larry’s folded fists, while offering self-help pablum about the impending divorce. Larry is too kind, too confused to do what he obviously wants to do: lay Sy out flat.

Larry moves out while waiting for the divorce proceedings, which means moving into the Jolly Roger Motel with his troubled brother Arthur. From this point on, Larry is looking for understanding, clarity, certainty, and he looks to his religion in the form of a succession of rabbis, working his way up the ladder from a clueless junior rabbi through a self-important CEO type toward the ultimate soothsayer, Rabbi Marshak, an old bearded sage reminiscent of the dybbuk of the prologue.  Larry never gets in to see Rabbi Marshak, who is too important or just too old to see anyone but the newly bar-mitzvahed.

So Larry’s religious culture gives him no answers; even his son’s bar mitzvah will be a travesty, when the son shows up stoned. And yet. Circumstances alone start working in Larry’s favor again: Sy Ableman is killed in a car accident; Larry gets tenure after days of nail-biting; and it seems that with Sy out of the way, Larry’s marriage may even be salvageable. And yet. The wheel turns again, and in the penultimate scene, Larry gets an urgent call from his doctor asking him to come in right now to talk about the results of that chest x-ray. In the final scene, Larry’s son’s Hebrew class is alerted to an approaching tornado. As the tornado bears down and the students watch helplessly from the schoolyard, the Hebrew teacher fumbles with the keys to the storm shelter. It is uncertain whether he can save the class from violent death.

Recently I have been hit with uncertainty. A situation that I thought was ideal has begun showing cracks. It’s nothing as serious as my health or Katie’s, but it’s something deeply unsettling. I thought everything was going so well. And yet. Perhaps not. Watching Larry Gropnik react fearfully to the changing circumstances of his life, I was reminded uncomfortably of my own. I squirmed in my seat at the cinema. I do not doubt that many Jews are buoyed by their faith. Larry, however, was not, and in that wonderfully symbolic final scene, I saw that the teacher who appeared to have the keys to salvation was, in fact, unable to lead his students to safety.

A tornado is coming. Probably it will arrive unannounced, much like the urgent call from Larry’s doctor, or like my father’s diagnosis of melanoma last year. Who will be holding the keys to the shelter when that storm hits, when that phone call comes? In my tradition, St. Peter holds the key: to the Church, to the Kingdom. But will the door open for me?

That depends, I believe, on faith, on the grace of faith. Is my faith strong enough to stand in the winds that will blow? Is it even strong enough today, in the mild breeze that ruffles my hair?

“A Serious Man” is a serious movie, and I would recommend it for any Jew or Catholic with serious questions, or any atheist for that matter. Just don’t expect to hear the answer from the lips of Rabbi Marshak.