Because Some Words Make My Heart Vibrate

I often lie awake in the small hours of the night. It’s a soon-to-be-old-man thing. Last night, both to get back to sleep and to avoid waking Katie, I read a Kindle book by the teeny light of my iPhone. Tonight, after thrashing around wondering whether it’s time to start posting again, I’m writing about it.

I was reading George Weigel’s book Letters to a Young Catholic. As a book publisher, I wonder how much of the $7.03 Kindle download fee Weigel is earning as a royalty, but as a reader I couldn’t care less. Letters to a Young Catholic is a lot of book for $7.03.

It hardly matters what I was reading from Weigel; it was the section on GK Chesterton (left), but it could as easily have been the one on Brideshead Revisited, which I picked up today at Borders at full retail. Weigel’s a wonderful read, especially for me; I am “young” as a Catholic convert if not as a JAG (football coach Bill Parcells’s acronym for “just a guy”). My point, though, is not the content of the Weigel book but the experience I had reading it.

With the lights off in the middle of the night, with the bright light of daily living dimmed down too, you can be intimately aware of your inner experience. “What my heart feels” becomes literal. Some thoughts, some readings in cases like this, can cause a distinct vibration in your chest, a warmth like the one you might feel in recognizing an old friend or finding the lost piece of silver. I felt that sensation while reading Letters to a Young Catholic—not just that it was “speaking to me,” but that it was speaking to the deepest needs of my heart.

This month, Communion and Liberation (CL) groups around the world (known in the parlance as “Schools of Community”) have been reading a short monograph by Fr. Julian Carron about the critical importance of making “judgments.” I thought I understood something about what this meant last night while reading Weigel. Making a judgment is a complicated notion and I can’t possibly exhaust its meaning here, but it boils down to weighing experience against the deepest needs of your heart. We grow through experience, Carron says, only when we “judge” it.

Reading Weigel by the light of my iPhone, I felt that I was in the presence of a dear friend who had something ultimately important to tell me. Two dear friends, actually. Standing alongside Weigel, overshadowing him literally, was the rotund GKC, explaining with the words of his book Orthodoxy, just exactly why I am a Catholic. “But that’s it exactly,” I thought, as my heart vibrated. “And that too—and that too.”

We judge things against other things, by contrast, and although Carron does not use this notion exactly, I did just this last night. An iPhone being an iPhone, mine periodically vibrated in my hand, indicating that, while reading Weigel on Chesterton, I had received an e-mail. And being a JAG, of course I pumped the control button and touched the e-mail command to see who or what it was that was trying to “reach” me at this hour. And each time I did so, my heart stopped. The moment I turned away from Weigel to pick up some trivial thread of quotidian experience, it was as though my heart literally stopped beating. The sensation of vibrant warmth vanished, and I was suddenly lost in “learning” something about the world. I had this experience not just when trashing a piece of junk mail but even when reading the New York Times lead story for the coming day, which flashed to me as it always does around 3:20. Last night that lead story was about the pope’s dramatic offer to the Anglican communion, which you might think would be “heart-warming” to Catholics everywhere. In fact, it is heart-warming to me too, but not that kind of heart-warming. 

The book that was most influential in my converting to Catholicism, My Life with the Saints by James Martin, S.J., tells a wonderful story of St. Ignatius of Loyola that perfectly mirrors my experience last night:

Confined to his sickbed, Iñigo asked a relative for some books. All she could offer was pious reading, which he took grumpily and grudgingly. To his great surprise, the soldier found himself attracted to the lives of the saints and began thinking, If St. Francis or St. Dominic could do such-and-such, maybe I could do great things. He also noticed that after thinking about doing great deeds for God, he was left with a feeling of peace—what he termed “consolation.” On the other hand, after imagining success as a soldier or impressing a particular woman, though he was initially filled with great enthusiasm, he would later be left feeling “dry.”

I dried out instantly last night each time I looked at my e-mail. Which makes me wonder just how dry most people’s daily lives are. As a JAG, I am “most people.” As a Catholic, I often feel an inner call to something else entirely.

(If my computer clock is working better than my circadian clock, this post will be date-stamped around 3 a.m. Time to get back to bed, back to Weigel, and, in about 20 minutes inevitably, back to the New York Times.)

Thanks to Good People Like Father Danielsen

I received an e-mail last evening from a priest living in a foreign country whom I will call Father Danielsen. He and I have corresponded off and on since he discovered this blog a few weeks back, and his comments have been uniformly supportive. I feel very grateful for his comments and for his support, and he has not been alone in offering them. Many people close to me—and quite far from me too—have responded joyfully and supportively.

But last night Father Danielsen did something different. He told me to slow down. It was my own confession in this post that this blog “has taken over my life” that did it. Here’s what he wrote in response:

Your blog has been a joy to read, but I enjoy it most when you keep to the basic score: “Why I am Catholic.” That was a very genial idea. You are at your best when you share the simple things that you ENJOY and APPRECIATE about being Catholic, the things for which you discover yourself to be profoundly grateful. But when you started linking to other blogs, right and left, I found myself thinking: “Oh, oh, it’s happening!” I don’t read your blog to follow links to other blogs. I read yours because in your writing about the people around you in your parish, I can see my own lifelong Catholicism and the Church herself in fresh and simple ways. On a number of occasions what you wrote has made me smile and sent me off on a reverie—remembering people and places and events from my own life—until my screen saver kicked in. Please don’t feel that you HAVE to keep this going at any cost. Don’t feel that you absolutely have to post one or two or three different things each day. You have heard the term “burnout” before, haven’t you? No one who suffers from it ever expected to. I don’t want to read: “Folks, that’s it! I’m quitting this blog because I need to get my life back!” I’d be happy to see you post once a week or less if it’s a genuine “Why I am (happy to be) Catholic” moment.

I shot back a sort of weak rebuttal combined with thanks, which of course is a contradiction. And Father Danielsen’s comments have been rattling around inside me ever since. Especially because I have spent valuable time today meditating on my “saint of the day,” Hilarion, a spiritual son of St. Anthony of the Desert, and believe me, I can’t find one honest reason to write about him. Hilarious, wouldn’t you say?

I started this blog with a purpose—to sort out the reasons why I am a Catholic and to communicate them clearly and effectively to people I love, especially my wife and children. When did I start going off track? Probably when I received the first praise from “someone important.” But certainly when I started tracking response to the blog with “the best software available.” And yet—the purpose remains, along with my love of being Catholic.

So here’s my proposal, gentle reader. I will not be posting every day, or every other day necessarily. I will post when the Spirit moves me, and I hope, I pray that I will not take that promise lightly. I will post when something inside me says, “I love being a Catholic, and I want people to know why, and here it is . . . ” Then I will do my best to tell you why.

And by the way—for all those, like Ferde, who think my Friday posts on “Joan of Arcadia” are throwaways, you have another thing coming. Because I will continue posting on Fridays about JoA! And any other day I have a good reason to be Catholic.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to send me their heartfelt reasons for being Catholic, I will review them and post those that I think can make a difference.

Until the next time the Spirit moves . . .

Thanks to Fragments of Christian Culture That Always Stayed with Me

From age 15 to my mid-50s, I rarely attended church, and still I’m pretty sure that God never abandoned me. Even when I found myself bobbing on an open sea without a life jacket, tiny bits of prayer and praise came to me like driftwood, like the coffin to which Ishmael clung. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the Doxology, the Our Father, the First and Greatest Commandment: These were four pieces of my Christian past that stayed with me.

At boarding school I studied German in my senior year. I loved the sound of the German language, still do. Some call it harsh, rough, crude; I find it beautiful. It might be that it makes my Anglo-Saxon roots ring. (FYI, Bull is not an Italian name, nor is Heffelfinger, my grandmother’s maiden name.) For some reason, whenever I studied a foreign language, I loved discovering the translations of my favorite English verses, which were more often the original words from which “my” English had been translated. In German class I learned the original German of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”: Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, a hymn written by Martin Luther (left) himself.  I can’t remember it all now, but I’m quite sure that I learned at least one full verse of this Protestant power hymn and spent a good week or two striding around campus in the manner of cracked adolescents everywhere, beating out four-four time with my right hand and muttering the hymn to myself with a fabulous faux German accent. It was consoling; it was, to use an overused term properly, empowering. I still feel the power of that hymn anytime I hear it, inside or outside my head. (This version is both grandiose and fruity enough to allow you to picture the cracked adolescent I once was.)

Like most boarding school students, I went home on vacation from time to time, and on these occasions, I went to Episcopal church with my parents—now more as a tourist than as a native. I distinctly remember a moment that always brought me back to childhood experience of the church: when we sang the Doxology, which if I recall correctly was sung as the offertory was presented:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host; 
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Forty years later, at my father’s funeral in that Episcopal church, I was brought to tears by nothing so much as by this Doxology. We did not bless ourselves, of course, when we came to the final statement of the Trinity, but I think it was this line, above any other, that led me to ponder the meaning of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (I still prefer Ghost = Geist, a good, strong Germanic word.)

I took a year off during college to travel through Europe at the beginning of what became, for lack of a better term, the eastern spirituality phase of my life. Here, in Paris, I studied French at the Alliance Française for several months, and as I had done in German class, I learned the local version of a favorite piece of devotion, in this case the Our Father. Notre père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifiée— It struck me as both curious and comforting that in French one addresses God with the intimate, personal form of You—tu, toi, ton, ta, tes—instead of the formal vous, vôtre. It brings God closer. What I remember most vividly is sitting at a particular sidewalk café, where we often sat late into the night, silently repeating to myself, Nôtre pere, qui es aux cieux . . . It was an odd devotion in those days of studying Buddhism, sufism, and related belief systems. But it returned to my consciousness regularly, and it strengthened me.

Back in college after a year off, I went through a period when the First and Greatest Commandment—Though shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength—was a sort of “mantra” for me (again because eastern thought systems seemed more congenial in those years). It amuses me now, and also pains me, that I never seemed to move on to the Second Commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I’m still working on that one. But while I do so, God, in His full triune form, yet close enough to hug—a mighty fortress and an intimate friend at the same time—is here with me, from moment to moment, each time I remember.

Because of Mary, and Ammie


Back on September 8th, we celebrated the Birthday of Mary. It is not possible to say “Why I Am Catholic” without a word or two about Mary. In fact, I have a word or two about two Marys.

First, the Blessed Virgin and a couple of personal thoughts. I spent long enough time in the Congregational and Episcopal churches to understand that there is a certain prejudice against our devotion to Mary.

 I find this ironic, coming from churches that are now in a rush to ordain women. Our Church, the Holy Catholic Church, has honored the Blessed Virgin Mary as not just an important woman but as Theotokos, the Mother of God, for Gosh sakes, for the better part of 2000 years, but that wasn’t good enough for you, my Protestant brothers and sisters? So now, by act of human will, and in the times in which we live, you’re going to set matters straight by elevating the ecclesial status of women? Cool.

I cannot recite the Cathechism. I cannot give you every why and wherefore for the Church’s devotion to Mary(but I bet Frank can). If you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog is written by lay converts to Catholicism (and one cradle Catholic) who can only speak their own truth, not even the Church’s. I can only write what makes sense to me, and this makes sense to me:

God is great. God is so great that no one can see his face, so great that even to utter his name was something none of our ancestors in faith, the Jews, would even do. God sent his only begotten son, the Word, the Christ, to redeem us from our sins. He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven. So even direct access, as in “Hello, operator, give me Jesus on the line,” is somewhat limited in the case of the Son of God. He sits on high, at the right hand of the Father.

And therefore to come to Him, to make Him a reality in our lives, we need intermediaries, we need intercession, we need baby steps. Mary to me represents those baby steps, those pure, innocent steps toward Him, the way toward the Way. Mary is presented to us as a paragon of purity, of virginity, a state so pure and free of bad thoughts and feelings, that it is something we can only aspire to. Yet aspire we do, because Mary is the way to the Way. Her purity, her impartiality, her devotion are models for all of us.

OK, a third and final thought about this Mary. The gospel for her feast day (long form) offers us that long, long list of names, almost all of them male, in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. We get the rationale. Most of us carry our father’s, not our mother’s names, through life. Kristin Lavransdatter was the daughter of whom? Right. Bull was the last name of my father and my father’s father and so on back.

Isn’t it absolutely remarkable, then, that this Church in which we worship and are brought into the presence of the Lord concludes this long litany of male names with the name of . . . a woman? How, by what miracle or grace, did a woman interject herself into the long and bloody tale of mostly male history? And let’s face it, the Jews shed their share of blood. This alone is worthy of contemplation, I think.

Now, the other Mary, that cute waif in a turban.

That Mary is or was my grandmother, Mary Heffelfinger Morrison, and I am a Catholic because of her too. When her husband, my stepgrandfather, Brig. Gen. H. T. Morrison, was on his deathbed, he reportedly said to her, “Mary, I won’t be cold in the ground before you convert to Catholicism.” And he was right, give or take a degree Fahrenheit. Ammie, as all of her twenty-six grandchildren knew and loved her, converted after “Grampa” died, and I know from her own testimony that this gave her great joy. There is a picture (I’ll publish it if I can find it) of Ammie “outside the ropes” at a Vatican appearance of His Holiness John Paul II. He is passing her, and she is absolutely hysterical—like a Bobby Soxer in front of Elvis, like all those girls on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Beatles’ first TV appearance.

The last time I saw Ammie, she said to me, “Dearie, someday soon you’re going to hear that I have died. I don’t want you to be sad. Because I know, I know that I will be in good hands.” I wish you could have seen Ammie’s smile. Even better, even purer than the smile on the face of that little girl in a turban.

Thank you, Mary. Thank you, Ammie.

For All the Saints: Isaac Jogues

My father tried his best to make a man of me, playing tackle football with my brother and me on the living room carpet and encouraging us to savor the great outdoors, of which there was much to savor in the Minnesota of our childhood. But at age fourteen, I set off on a six-week canoe trip in the north woods, and my Paul Bunyan period came to an abrupt end.

There were two terrors I remember from that trip: the leeches that found their way into our boots during a portage and the gauntlet we had to run if we happened to utter the forbidden word cocoa. The latter was a longstanding tradition on this trip: The sweet, warm, brown stuff in a cup was referred to as hot choc and never cocoa. Say the forbidden word and you had to run buck naked down a line of paddle-wielding mates. Fortunately, I never transgressed, though I lived in mortal fear of this sin. 

I never returned to the north woods, nor have I ever been proud of my record as a backwoodsman. But memories of the experience give me a greater appreciation for the incredible hardships and literal torture suffered by Isaac Jogues, who with John de Brébeuf and companions are known collectively as the North American Martyrs. We celebrate these saints today, October 19.

Jogues was born in Orléans, France, about 160 years after Joan of Arc won her greatest military victory there. He, Brébeuf, and others became Jesuit priests dedicated to converting the indigenous tribes of New France, ministering to them in upstate New York and around the Great Lakes.

Quebec was short on Jesuits, so Jogues enlisted a lay assistant named René Goupil, who knew medicine. Together they set off into Mohawk country. Richard P. McBrien’s Lives of the Saints picks up the story:

They were attacked by Mohawks, who bit off Jogues’s fingernails or chewed his forefingers. Goupil was similarly abused. Thy were taken captive and brought to the Mohawk village. On the way, Jogues accepted Goupil’s vows as a Jesuit. During a pause in the jorney, however, they were stripped and forced to run the gauntlet up a rocky hill. When they reached the village (located in present-day Auriesville, New York) on the bank of the Mohawk River, they were again forced to run the gauntlet, after which a squaw cut off Jogues’s left thumb with a jagged shell. The men were then taken to a building where they were stretched out and tied to the ground while children dropped hot coals on their naked bodies. After three days of torture, they were handed over to the chief to act as his personal slaves. A few weeks later, Goupil was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on a child.

I gather that the gauntlet run by the brave men of New France involved tomahawks and not canoe paddles. An entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia continues with the story of Jogues:  

. . . he remained [in Auriesville] for thirteen months in slavery, suffering apparently beyond the power of natural endurance. The Dutch Calvinists at Fort Orange (Albany) made constant efforts to free him, and at last, when he was about to be burnt to death, induced him to take refuge in a sailing vessel which carried him to New Amsterdam (New York). . . . From New York he was sent, in mid-winter, across the ocean on a lugger of only fifty tons burden and after a voyage of two months, landed Christmas morning, 1643, on the coast of Brittany, in a state of absolute destitution. Thence he found his way to the nearest college of the Society [of Jesus]. He was received with great honour at the court of the Queen Regent, the mother of Louis XIV, and was allowed by Pope Urban VII the very exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass, which the mutilated condition of his hands had made canonically impossible; several of his fingers having been eaten or burned off [by his Indian captors]. He was called a martyr of Christ by the pontiff. . . .

And then? Jogues went back to North America to minister to the Iroquois and Mohawks! It comes as no surprise that the determined Jesuit was tortured and then tomahawked to death in October 1646.

Bruce Beresford’s fine 1991 film Black Robe is apparently a fictionalized rendering of the Jogues story, with the requisite gratuitous love story between a lay French companion of the priest “Father Laforgue” and an Indian maiden. But at least it preserves the gruesome detail of a thumb being amputated with a shell.

I will be thinking of Isaac Jogues today and of the other patron saints of North America; of their courage and even more remarkable witness; and of a teenage boy who did everything in his power to avoid using the forbidden word cocoa.

(Sources: Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints; and the Catholic Encyclopedia, available on line at the New Advent web site)

For This Gift

Men’s group was unusual yesterday morning. There were only eight of us present, but after the closing prayer no one moved. Usually we are closer to fifteen, and when Frank has finished leading a prayer to Michael the Archangel, most everyone stands. What explained the small turnout and people remaining in their seats? Maybe the weather. Maybe the subject of the meeting: this blog.

Our Christian life is contradictory: very private, yet on display for the world to see. Of course, a blog is like that, or at least this one is. I draw the line at very private matters, and I keep some names confidential. But I can’t escape the obvious: this blog is a form of personal witness, whether I originally thought of it that way or not, and every day, in your comments and e-mails, as well as yesterday morning, at men’s group, I experience the repercussions.

I talked at the meeting yesterday about how this blog began: as a sort of love letter to my wife and daughters, as well as a few friends. Who, after all, would find YIMCatholic in the haystack of the blogosphere? I recounted how, to my sincere amazement, I heard “out of the blue,” within ten days, from Fr. James Martin, author of the book featured in my first post; and within another week from, arguably, the most influential writer in Catholic blogging, The Anchoress. (I got into a friendly tussle with her about my “mildlylefty” political leaning, but all in good fun.) Kevin Knight at New Advent started picking up my posts, and pretty soon I was in touch with Catholics around the world—still not in huge numbers but enough to know that my words were having an impact.

At the meeting, I talked in general terms of two e-mails received recently: one from a seminarian undergoing a vocational crisis in another country, one from a self-described politically conservative Catholic in turmoil because she finds herself in a parish she called “Democratic before Catholic.” I told my men friends that each of these, and others, had written that my blog had “helped” them. This frankly astonishes me still. One member of the group, a former seminarian himself, explained that he understood “perfectly” how my words could have helped the seminarian. Later yesterday, this friend sent me a long e-mail in which the meeting was still echoing loudly.

Sooner or later, and I think the moment arrived yesterday, I have to come to terms with this thing that, as I confessed to my dear wife, “has taken over my life.” This blog is now something I have to do. It is a gift, not necessarily a great one, but mine. And if I don’t exercise it I will be failing to do what Eric Liddell insisted on doing in the film Chariots of Fire, about which I expect to be writing sooner rather than later.

His sister Jennie told Eric he was wasting his life training to be a runner. She wanted him to commit his life to a foreign mission, posthaste, just as their father had done. Eric protested (and I’m paraphrasing): “I believe God made me for a purpose. But Jennie, he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

I feel a special sort of pleasure writing this blog, and it may even be His, though that’s a presumption I won’t make. I saw that pleasure reflected in the faces of my men friends yesterday morning, and I read its echoes in each comment (well, most comments!) and in each e-mail you so kindly send.

If nothing else, this blog has made me not just feel but know that I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church, that remarkable society of friends established on earth by Our Savior two thousand years ago, and that is one gift I cannot take lightly. If I am true to it, things will turn out fine, I’m sure.

Things turned out fine for Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. Insisting that he could not run in an Olympic heat on the Lord’s Day, he was moved to another event, in which he won a gold medal in the Paris Olympics of 1924. He then served as a missionary for the rest of his life.

For All the Saints: Justus of Beauvais

Since today is Sunday, we are unlikely to hear much about St. Luke, whose feast is celebrated on October 18. So on day 2 of my new saint-a-day scheme I thought I’d look farther afield. With seven saints to choose from, according to this calendar, my attention was grabbed by St. Justus, surely the youngest cephalophore in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

According to the bio at Catholic OnLine, Justus was born in 278 “and lived at Auxerre, France, with his father. At that time, the persecution of Diocletian was in full force. Justus and his father went to Amiens to ransom a relative. While there, Justus was reported to the authorities to be a Christian magician, and soldiers were sent to arrest him. When confronted at Beauvais, Justus, who was nine years old, confessed that he was a Christian, and he was immediately beheaded. Legend has it that he then stood upright with his head in his hand, at which the soldiers fled.”

There are a number of things that jump out at me.  First, this holy card, courtesy of an Italian web site, is not cephalophoric. A cephalophore is someone, usually a saint, who carries his own head in his hands. The saint of the holy card has his head where it should be.

The next thing that jumps out at me is, that’s exactly the sort of thing a stage magician would do—carry his head in his hands. I know something about stage magic. For twenty-five years, as I’ve written previously, I was a member of “the world’s largest resident stage magic ensemble.” That this troupe is still performing right here in Beverly, Massachusetts, two blocks from my church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, is just one of linkages that makes my life so amazing to me.

For twenty-five years, more than half my adult life, I performed with this troupe, which has been successful enough to earn two pages in Time, ten pages in Smithsonian, and seven trips to the White House. I’m not making this up—although the longer I write this blog, the more unbelievable my own life seems to me. You can still see “Le Grand David,” performing every Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, although you will not see me!

Butler writes about Justus:

His cult was very popular throughout north-western Europe; in Belgium it was centred on the abbey of Malmédy, where the monks were said to have obtained the martyr’s body “for a good price” in the tenth century. In England King Athelstan gave Winchester the martyr’s head in 924, but the monks at Auxerre claimed he had only a part of it. 

Monks wrangling over body parts is one of the things I find most endearing about the Catholic Church. But now another voice rises up inside and says, Wow, these people were deadly serious about this! And what—I know it’s not likely—but what if it’s true? What if a nine-year-old boy was so faithful that he gave himself up to martyrdom, less than 250 years after the death of Our Savior, or about as much time as separates me from Benjamin Franklin? Is it possible to imagine a Christian child doing that today? Is it so inconceivable—I know it’s a “legend”—but is it so inconceivable that God could have so loved this child that he made him a sign to the world, giving him the strength to pick up his own head and, according to another account, tell folks where to bury his body?

I find it interesting that the book generally acknowledged to be the first ever published about the performance art we now call stage magic was The Discoverie of Witchcraft, written by Reginald Scot. If you own a first edition of Scot today (there are only a handful in existence), you are a wealthy person. Scot’s book was published in 1584, while the Protestant Rebellion was in high season. Luther and Calvin were dead already, and the Council of Trent had concluded its business, but the tsunami of revolt had hardly run its course. At that particular moment in history, a book made its appearance which explained how miracles can be made to appear by human means. The 425 years since Scot have pretty much “demystified” the world, the secular world anyway. The Enlightenment has worked its magic, and instead of transubstantiation at the altar we have the transformation of water into wine on stage. Instead of Justus of Beauvais, we have Penn & Teller, who are the latest step in the demystification of the world. Not only can there be no real miracles in the world of P&T;, but heck, even the fake miracles are stripped of the miraculous!

For myself, I prefer to imagine a nine-year-old boy in a Gallic outpost of the Roman Empire so entranced by Christ that he gave his life for his faith. The picking up of his head and the telling people where to bury the body—that’s really small potatoes, isn’t it?

(Sources for this post: medievalist.net, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Catholic OnLine, and as always, with gratitude, My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, S.J.

Because of My First Rosary, At Lourdes, Thanks to Cesareo

I said my first rosary 35 years before I owned a rosary. It was at Lourdes in the summer of 1971, in the company of the mentor of my early years, Cesareo Pelaez, who celebrates his 77th birthday today. When I wrote a post summarizing my first seven weeks of blogging, it struck me that I hadn’t written about a whole list of “Cesareo moments.” Lourdes 1971 is the first that comes to mind.

Cesareo moments were times when, long before I was a Catholic, Cesareo taught me about Catholicism. He did this not to evangelize but because, until he was slowed by a stroke four years ago, Cesareo was always teaching—even when you didn’t want to be taught! And since he was raised in a Cuban hothouse of Catholicism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the Church and its culture tended to flow out of him like mother’s milk. So if you traveled with him, as I did often in the early 1970s, you were forever seeing and hearing about Catholic stuff.

I thought about this yesterday when reviewing recent posts on Pat McNamara’s excellent blog of Catholic history. I came upon Blessed Alexandrina Maria de Costa (left), and I thought, Cesareo told me about her, and I never believed him. What he told me was that a woman in Portugal had lived with nothing but the Holy Eucharist for food—for many years. I thought that sounded pretty far-fetched, and I stored it on my mental Catholic culture shelf somewhere between the Turin Shroud (in which I still choose to believe, despite evidence debunking it) and pieces of the True Cross (of which there are enough to reconstitute an entire redwood forest). I checked the dates in Pat’s post: Blessed Alexandrina lived on the Eucharist alone from 1942 until her death in 1955. For Cesareo, this period spanned age ten to age twenty-three, or from before his confirmation until he was teaching at a Marist Brothers school in Santa Clara. Of course, any “phenomenon” like Blessed Alexandrina would have been bruited among the priests and nuns with whom Cesareo was in contact.

So, Lourdes—Cesareo and I traveled together for seven months in 1971, from February thru August. Sometime in May or June perhaps we arrived at this village on the French side of the Pyrenees. I’m sure there was a long build-up by Cesareo as our train snaked its way through the French countryside, but nothing could have prepared me for that experience. There are two episodes I most remember, one intimate, one grandly theatrical.

In 1971, there were in Lourdes, if memory serves, several hospitals or hospices for the care of invalids, thousands of whom come every year in hopes of a cure. On a beautiful late-spring day I was walking alone past one of these buildings when I noticed some kind of vehicle being unloaded and hospital sisters in full habits scurrying about. My attention must have been attracted, and I wandered closer when, suddenly, one of the sisters turned hopefully to me and asked, in French, if I could help for a moment. Mais bien sur! She gestured to follow her to the far side of the vehicle, then reached inside, and pulled out a child, whom she immediately placed in my arms, indicating that I was to carry the child up a flight of stairs. Attention à la tête! she said. Be careful of the head.

I looked down and only then fully realized what, I should say whom, I was facing. It was a hydrocephalic boy, with “water on the brain” and a terribly misshapen head. I was frankly shocked. But he was in my arms and there was only one place to go: up the flight of stairs. I cannot remember how much eye contact I made with the child, or whether I even said anything. I know I was trembling. I reached the top of the stairs and mercifully was met by another sister who quickly scooped the child from my arms with a simple Merci, monsieur. Feeling my own inadequacy and lack of charity more than anything else, I beat a hasty retreat. Nor did I “volunteer” again to help the invalids of Lourdes.

That evening, I said my first rosary. At least that’s how I thought of it, though I was not holding beads and the rosary was said in French, with which I was only high-school-fluent. I did know the Our Father in French—Notre père, qui es aux cieux . . . —and could chime in pretty well every decade. But the Hail Mary was a work in progress. Yet none of the words mattered ultimately, because I was “saying my rosary” with (I’d estimate) twenty thousand other souls, most of whom held a candle as we processed together in front of the great church that has been built above the grotto where the Blessed Mother, referring to herself as the Immaculate Conception, appeared to St. Bernadette (left) in 1858.

I cannot reconstitute that experience enough to provide much more detail. I can only say that from that evening on, the rosary was impressed on my consciousness as something I wanted to experience more often. When your voice is joined with twenty thousand others, you understand that something far greater than you is praying when you say the words. There was a presence in the square in front of the church at Lourdes that evening, a presence I would pine for through many years to come.

Because of Joan of Arcadia V

When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with two things: death and popularity. This is one reason I like “Joan of Arcadia”: It moves from the ultimate to the banal and back again, and always in reference to God. One moment Joan is pondering final questions, the next she is wondering whether she will be a social pariah if she follows God’s request and becomes a cheerleader. And always the solution is the same, the words we say in the Invitatory Psalm 95 each day: “Listen to the voice of the Lord.”

In episodes 6 and 7 of season 1, the theme of popularity precedes that of death, which is how most teenagers rank these issues. In “Bringeth It On,” God appears to Joan as a bearded homeless man, popping up from behind a trash can to tell her to try out for the cheerleadering squad at Arcadia High. For Joan, who usually hangs around with artist Adam Rove (left with Joan) and tomboy Grace Polk, this means “social suicide.” God replies with his usual practicality, “Tryouts are Monday.”

Meanwhile, Luke is wondering whether he might be homosexual. Sparks have been flying between him and Grace in AP chem, so when the willowy Glynnis asks Luke if he will be her partner for the science fair and Luke is slow to grab the opportunity, Friedman, Luke’s buddy, leaps to the obvious conclusion: “You’re hot for a lesbo. Skip the denial: You like a dyke, which means you just tested positive for the presence of gay.”

Luke is perturbed and refers this “big question” to older brother Kevin in a classic bit of JoA dialogue:

Luke: Does it mean I’m gay if I like a lesbian?
Kevin: Liking a girl is liking a girl, and who says she’s a lesbian? Here’s your only indicator: When you’re alone, just passing the time, what do you like thinking about?
Luke: How to get past level 5 on Diablo.
Kevin: I mean, in the shower . . .
Luke (light dawning, deadly serious): Sometimes I think of Condoleeza Rice.

Joan’s quandary is not so easily resolved but finally intertwines beautifully with the inevitable JoA police subplot. Dad, police chief Will Girardi, is investigating the case of a baby found alive in a dumpster. The trail leads back to Arcadia High and to a girl on the cheerleading squad. When she confesses that she ditched her newborn, she has to leave the school in tearful disgrace. The rest of the cheerleading team ignores her as trash herself. Only Joan stops to ask how she’s doing. In the final cheerleading scene, at final tryouts, Joan offers a hip-hop cheer exposing the hypocrisy of the other girls.

Outside school, Luke asks Grace to be his partner for the science fair, and the flirtatious chemistry between them flares—

Grace: I don’t plan ahead. Ask when it’s closer.
Luke (beaming): You’re saying it’s possible?
Grace: Yeah, if you stop acting like such a loser.

When I was in ninth grade, we read John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” the true story of the death of Gunther’s teenage son by brain tumor. So I smile at the title of episode 7, “Death Be Not Whatever.”

At career day at the high school, Joan stops at a booth for the airline industry and talks with Stewardess God. For once, the Almighty’s instructions are a bit vague. Instead of “Get a job in the bookstore,” or “Have a yard sale,” God advises Joan: “You’re going to be in the position to help someone. You’re going to have to pay attention. Look at behavior. Not everyone knows how to look for help.”

Not every TV show cites Kübler-Ross or quotes Kierkegaard, which is another reason to like JoA. While Joan is pondering God’s advice, her mother, Helen, is agonizing over Kevin’s paralysis, caused by a car accident. She consults a priest, who advises her to read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic work on the five stages of grief. Helen: “But no one died.” Priest: “Kevin didn’t pass on, but all of you experienced a kind of death.” The scene in a luncheonette closes with Kierkegaard, courtesy of the priest: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have.”

Joan’s pal Adam is moping, complaining that he “hates November.” Joan and Grace think he’s just being his spacey self. But when Joan takes a babysitting job, looking after Rocky, a death-obsessed little boy who is dying himself, she ultimately learns why Adam is blue. Rocky’s mom explains to Joan that Rocky has an aggressive form of cystic fibrosis and is unlikely to survive his next infection. In the next scene, Rocky takes Joan to the cemetery, his favorite hangout.

Joan: When you said a fun place, I was thinking, like, Laser Tag.
Rocky: I find it informational.
Joan: Rocky, I understand now, what’s happening to you. . . . Would it make you feel better to know that there’s someone out there watching for us and caring for us and that this person or thing will still be watching for us and caring about us after we leave?
Rocky: I don’t believe in God.
Joan: What if I promised, I mean, cross-my-heart promised? I’ve seen Him.
Rocky: You’ve had a near-death experience?
Joan: No, I — I’ve seen him, sometimes, it’s not always a him, it’s complicated — but the point is, God is there, and if he’s there, there’s a plan, and if there’s a plan, then everything is going to be OK. I think.
Rocky: Yeah, that’d be cool.

Still in the cemetery, Rocky comments that many people seem to die on or about their own birthday. “There,” he says, pointing, “another example.” Joan looks to see the headstone of Adam’s mother, who was born and died in, yes, November.

After lovely scenes between Joan and Adam, and Helen and Will (she shares the Kübler-Ross book with him), the episode closes with a scene on the bus between Joan and Hottie God (the same young, good-looking male God who appeared in the pilot). Joan is feeling blue about Rocky’s condition and Adam’s grief.

Joan (to God): You have a lot to answer for, buddy. Nobody asked to be born. So we all get to die, and everybody we love dies?
God: Yeah.
Joan: And that’s good for you?
God: Joan, there’s nothing I could say about that that would make sense to you.
Joan: A lot of what happens here really sucks, so so much for your perfect system! Do you see me being really mad at you right now?
God: Yes.
Joan: Why does it have to be so hard?
God: What specifically?
Joan: Being alive. Let’s start there.
God: Do you wish you weren’t alive?
Joan: No. I don’t know. I wish it didn’t hurt so much.
God: It hurts because you feel it, Joan, because you’re alive. I love people. That generates a lot of power, a lot of energy, the same energy that binds atoms together. We’ve all seen what happens when you try to pry them apart.
Joan: So if I don’t get attached to people it won’t hurt so much?
God: No, it’s in your nature to get attached to people. I put that in the recipe. It’s when you guys try to ignore that, when you try to go it alone, that it gets ugly. It’s hell.
Joan: It’s hell . . . ? Like the hell?
Bus stops.
God: Oh, look: your house. Go on, Joan, people are waiting for you.

As the bus pulls away bearing Hottie God, up comes Ben Harper’s song on the soundtrack, “I am blessed to be a witness.” Which is getting to be exactly how it feels to write this blog.

For My Friend Who Has Fallen Away from the Church

I have a friend, a powerful, brilliant man who has accomplished far more than I. He has been in higher places and shaken more important hands. He belongs to the best clubs, dines in the best restaurants, attracts the most beautiful women. But there is another difference between us. My friend was raised in the Catholic Church and has fallen away from it, while I was raised apart from it and have been, by some unaccountable mystery, called to it. When I think of my friend, I feel sad. And I truly don’t know what to do.

Do you know someone like this?

When I began to see how powerful an impact Catholicism was having on my life, I soon thought, I wish I had been a Catholic all my life. Then, in almost the next thought, I thought of people like my friend, cradle Catholics for whom a door closed somewhere in their minds, for whom the Church is now something in the past that they would just as soon leave behind, and I realized how lucky I was to come to it now, after two-thirds or three-quarters or who knows how much of a long, winding life, only to find myself finally at home. 

This, it seems to me, is the contemporary story of the prodigal son writ a million times over—all of the born Catholics of my (boomer) generation who, in the years following Vatican II, meaning the years of Vietnam and the sexual revolution, thought to themselves, I know better, there’s something about the Church that is wrong, I don’t need that anymore. I know that the Church, like the good father in the parable, or the good Mother that it is, waits to welcome them all home again, if only they would find their way there.

But what can we do to help get them there? More specifically, what can I do about my friend?

I see him now, same age as me, approaching sixty, with his children moved away, his house gone quiet, his power at his firm on the wane, his golf game getting shorter and more erratic by the year, and I wonder, What do his last years hold for him? What does eternity hold? I like him, I love him, and for all that he is not a church-going Catholic anymore, I admire him tremendously. At times that are not necessarily my best, I even envy him, even today: the power, the clubs, the money, the women.

What can I do for my friend? I know that the direct approach will not work. I’ve tried it, and anyway, I’m not subtle enough, not by half. Ever hear of a bull in a china shop? Well, Bull is my last name, so that’s half of the old chestnut right there. I’m not as direct as Ferde—who can be a sledgehammer when tweezers would do—but I’m in that league.

What can any of us do? Because just as Ferde and I and everyone at St. Mary’s are Catholics for Julian DesRosiers and for all the other young people coming along behind us, it seems to me that we have to be Catholics for all those who once were Catholics and could be again. Somehow, I’m thinking, we have to live our lives in such a way, or somehow find the grace, or let the grace find us, so that we are so joyous, so resplendent, that others will be drawn to the Church by our example. This will never happen, at least for me, by standing on a soapbox in front of St. Mary’s and proclaiming the kingdom or by ringing doorbells door to door. But somehow happen it must, if my friend is ever to find his way back. Either that, or God will just have to hit him over the head, as He did me.

I know the answer, or think I do: prayer. I must pray more often and more fervently for my friend. But even with prayer and the grace that buoys me, I slip, I sink, I fall. I myself am so weak that sometimes in confession I feel most of all that I’ve let the world down with my sins. Forget my salvation. What about my friend’s salvation? What about the salvation of everyone for whom I am repeatedly a bad example, not a holy one? Every time I slip, every time I’m a jerk instead of joyful, I risk shedding a negative light on my experience, on the Church, the good Mother waiting at the door.

Of course, I’m probably giving myself too much credit. And the Mother not enough. Jesus Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, is the one calling the prodigals, all those lost sheep, home. I’ve tried to recount all the many reasons YIM Catholic. I even summarized them in a personal psalm. And they don’t add up to the One Reason, what I have called the unaccountable mystery, for which any of us is a Christian.

Probably, then, I should just shut up and pray. And go regularly to confession. And say a rosary at Adoration today for my friend. Because I do love him, I do love my life as a Catholic, and so therefore logically I can only want that life for him and for all those I love.

Come, Holy Spirit.


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