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.

Because of Our History (Guest Post)

A guest post arrives today from Renetta Burlage, an author and publisher from Iowa. Renetta’s lovely book of family history, Bread on the Table, tells the story of her grandmother. Here she tells of a different, longer story: the two thousand years of Catholic history that inspire her and explain in part why she is a Catholic. 

We can all trace our ancestry back to some point in our family tree, giving us an idea of who we are today and where we originated. The Catholic Church has a history as well. From Pope Benedict XVI back to our first pope, St. Peter, our church has a history rooted in Christ Jesus. As Catholics, we have a common identity and we know where our faith comes from. Over two thousand years have passed since Jesus instructed the Apostles to “Go Forth and spread the Good News.” Although I received the sacrament of Baptism as an infant, it is this longevity, this deep and unbreakable bond that draws and holds me to my faith today.

As the youngest of five children, I was raised in a Catholic family where my parents led by example instead of discussing their faith openly. My siblings and I never questioned the structure or family traditions that revolved around our faith: Sunday mass at 8:00 a.m., catechism on Saturday mornings, Holy Days of Obligation, Holy Week services, Sister School in June taught by nuns, and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Our Catholic faith was entwined in our lives and became part of our family history.

While attending college, I had the opportunity to explore other faiths through friendships of people I met. This was interesting and gave me a new perspective, allowing me to view my Catholic faith from a different angle. Although I came away from the experience realizing that we all shared the same God, my heart was not content until I came back to the roots that sustained my family, my Catholic faith.

One of the devotions I started during college was reciting the rosary. My mother, who converted to Catholicism before marrying my father, has always had a strong devotion to our Blessed Virgin Mother, and her rosary has been her lifeline. When faced with a challenge or perilous situation, my mother would quickly remind us to say three Hail Marys while trusting that Mary would intervene and watch over us.

In addition to praying for our Blessed Mother’s intercession, I have found comfort and joy in praying to our beautiful Communion of Saints for their spiritual guidance. The saints are an important segment of the Church’s history, and I marvel at the experiences these men and women had as holy models of Christ. Just like you and me, these people were born of human flesh and blood. Yet their lives exemplied their total surrender to God’s will and their service to others in need. The Catholic Church is enriched by the saints and the examples of holiness they demonstrate. My personal favorite is St. Anthony, and I value the St. Anthony’s Bread program, which provides assistance to those in need.

So much can be learned from history, especially the historical significance gained from one’s own family. Tracing the roots of history can be gratifying and re-enforces our heritage with a sense of belonging to a common body. Recently, I released a family memoir, Bread on the Table: The Story of Lottie Porter and the Family She Raised. It is the story of my maternal grandmother, a widow at the age of 46, who faced the challenge of raising eight children during the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. The experience of researching and writing this book gave me much insight into the lives of my ancestors and how they triumphed during times of adversity.

Today, I feel at home when I practice my faith in the Catholic Church, and my husband and I have incorporated teachings and traditions we have learned from our families into our new, personal family. Like the bonds that connect each member of the family, the principal reason I am Catholic is our Church’s strong and sustaining history, which teaches, strengthens, and unites us as one body in Christ.

Because Eleven O’Clock Always Comes

As Elizabeth wrote beautifully yesterday, it is amazing how often the liturgy speaks directly to the questions of our hearts. As I entered St. Mary’s this morning, I was reminded that it was two years ago today that I began attending daily mass, on my road to being received into the Church. The next thought was, When did I start taking this for granted?

As I came in, the lights were on in the nave, because it was five minutes to the hour. When I first started coming to mass, I often arrived forty-five minutes early and all but the altar lights were off. Those were holy moments, and I felt the inexpressible value of being called to worship God. Now, I come in like a season ticket holder at the opera, dropping down into my box at the last possible moment to be seen by the most possible people. There are mitigating circumstances, of course: A major book project I’m working on under a tight deadline. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours before mass. And now this blog. Often, I’ll wake up with a post half written in my mind, and the only time to put it down is Right Now.

Still, I/we take things for granted so quickly and with so little compunction. I was reminded of that again yesterday as Katie and I celebrated our 25th anniversary, partly with dinner at a restaurant where we had one of our first dates. And again this morning I was reminded by Father Barnes‘s homily and by something Ferde said, like an exclamation point, at the end of mass.

The first reading today, from Romans (2:1–11), is all about judging and being judged. But Father Barnes’s first comment was not about judging but about time: Not quoting here exactly, he said we have limited time to repent, to get things right with God.

I thought immediately to myself, And you are 58 years old, and you have a lot of catching up to do, and you’re taking this for granted?! You’d better wake up, brother.

Our faith, which can be such a source of joy, is a serious business at the same time. Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour!

Back in my Eastern spirituality days, which reached their peak in the 1980s, I met a man who inspired me more than any other. His name was Michel. Several encounters with Michel were eye-opening for me. They led me to feel a possibility that I had never known before. Then, for circumstances not entirely under my control, I lost contact with Michel. Then, a few years later, I heard that Michel had died. I felt this as a terrible loss. I felt separated from the very source of goodness. I deeply regretted my own failure to contact Michel again before his death, come what might have come. And I knew that some things are lost forever, irrevocably.

That may be the way the Apostles, the women, and other followers of Christ felt the day after the Crucifixion. Of course, they got a second chance. And we get a second chance every morning at mass! Imagine that. Michel may be gone, but Jesus Christ is present every single day—in the Church, in the Eucharist, and in our fellowship as Christians. What a joyous thought!

As Father Barnes added in his homily, quoting one of his teachers in seminary, “God could have sent us a letter.” But instead he sent us his own Son, he sent us Himself. And He is present here in this sanctuary and there in that tabernacle, every day we open our hearts and minds to Him.

As we exited mass, things got serious again, as only Ferde can make them serious. He began talking about theatre, where both he and his wife have worked professionally, and he reminded me of an expression common among theatre people. No matter how good or bad the show was, “eleven o’clock always comes.” The show ends and will soon be forgotten.

Which in the theatre can be a blessing but in life is another matter. Eleven o’clock is coming! Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour! Wake up, brother, wake up! Today is the only day you have to get things right with God.

Because of Katie

In honor of our 25th wedding anniversary today and especially in honor of Katie, the only person I know who would gladly swim off one of the Aran Islands in March and without whose courage and goodness (who knows?) I might not have had what it takes to stick with a marriage, even to such an exceptional person, for 25 years, or long enough to become a Catholic who, now bolstered by faith, upholds and defends the inviolability of marriage between a man and a woman, and especially this man and this woman—In honor of all this, I say, I’ll quote a few excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject of matrimony. Words to live by—

1602 Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.” Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its “mystery” . . .
1603 . . . God himself is the author of marriage. . . .
1604 God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.
1613 On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign—at his mother’s request—during a wedding feast. . . .
1617 The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.
1640 . . . the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. 
1641 . . . The grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”
1642 Christ is the source of this grace. . . .
1643 “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter . . . “
1644 The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life . . .
1646 By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses.
1648 It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love.

Happy anniversary, darling.

Survey #2: Because of What Hymn?

As I’ve written previously, Saturday morning men’s group can be a trial, especially when we argue dogma. But this week, Jonathan, the smartest, best-read person in the group, talked about Catholic hymnody, and I got answers to some questions—like why our hymnals are not written in four-part harmony and why Catholics don’t end hymns with “Amen.”

These questions have plagued me since becoming a Catholic because if there’s one thing I remember from Episcopal church-going circa age 13, it’s singing the Protestant hymnal alongside my dad, and if there’s one thing I miss since converting, it’s singing the Protestant hymmal (though singing alongside Dad is no longer an option).

Especially I remember learning to read music and taking a stab at the bass line on Protestant power hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” When I got lost—usually because I could not split my attention between the harmony and the relatively unknown verses 3-4-5-6—I always knew that I could really slam the old Amen at the end.

Now, not only is there no bass line to sing but there’s no Amen to slam. But I sing out anyway, although your average Catholic, to judge by my fellow, otherwise wonderful parishioners, is lily-livered when it comes to hymn singing. Poor Father Barnes comes up the center aisle behind the crucifix and the altar servers, belting “Come Now, Almighty King!” for all he’s worth, and do we back him up? No. Catholics are cowards when it comes to hymnody. Protestants may not be liturgical in the main, but they sing God’s praises loud enough to make the grape juice ripple in the Dixie Cups.

I’m not going to get into detail about Jonathan’s presentation. I don’t remember it in much detail, to be honest. But the main message was, Protestants are the man where hymns are concerned and Catholics are the mouse. Which explains the lack of both harmony in the hymnal and slammable Amens. The one hopeful message I took away from the meeting was that, now that we have a pope who is also a music afficionado, the word out of Rome is, let’s sing, people. I hope we do.

But you, my dear brother, my dear sister—what hymns have inspired you? I’ve mentioned two from my salad days in the Episcopal Church, and I’ll mention a couple of others that have inspired me only since becoming a Catholic: “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

How about you? Let’s hear it in comments below! I’ll wait a week before summarizing your responses.


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