Opening Meeting of the YIM Catholic Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 1

Katie belongs to a book club that meets once a month on Thursdays. Oprah—well, we know about Oprah and books. I think it’s high time for YIM Catholic to host a book club, and I propose meeting every Thursday evening. So let’s begin immediately, with Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

The YIM Catholic Book Club (YIMCBC) will take one chapter a week, nothing too strenuous. The format is simple: I’ll provide a very brief summary and then offer some personal comments, reflections, and so on. Then you’ll use comments to keep the discussion going until next week. Sound good?

Chapter 1, Introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else”

Chesterton begins and ends this short opening chapter laughing at himself—as someone “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation,” and as the author of “a sort of slovenly autobiography.” He claims the book is being written in response to a critic. It all seems like a pose.

But inside the pose and at the heart of the chapter is an evocative tale that can be read on several levels of meaning: A British yachtsman, Chesterton writes, “slightly miscalculated his course” and, in search of an exotic port of call, landed in England, where he began. According to Chesterton, the yachtsman thought England both exotic and familiar.

Chesterton is the yachtsman. Like every thinking, feeling human, Chesterton and the yachtsman want a life of what he calls “practical romance,” one in which one feels simultaneously “astonished” and “at home.” Also, like other English intellectuals of his era (late 19th–early 20th century), like H. G. Welles and G. B Shaw, for two examples, Chesterton confesses that he wanted to be in the avant garde of modern thought. Instead he found himself embracing the oldest, most orthodox creed of all, the Apostles’ Creed. The book, he says, will explain why.

My comment here is brief: Like Chesterton in the late 19th century, I took such a journey, in the late 1960s, setting out for the exotic only to find myself, 40 years later, back home in England. I left the known confines of the Episcopal Church when I went away to boarding school, and I began to sample the spiritual smorgasbord then available. I read, and in some cases tried to apply the insights of (in alphabetical order) Baha’i, the Gurdjieff Work, Sufism, Swedenborgianism, Yoga, and Zen. I know I’m leaving things out, but I promised brief.

Now, 40 years later, I find myself very much back in England, though Rome is more to the point. Where Episcopalianism offered a cheeseburg and fries, Catholicism provides a full gourmet dinner built around filet mignon (medium, please) and capped off with my favorite dessert, angel food cake, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries. But the main course is still just beef.

Not only do I find myself back where I started, but drawing on Chesterton’s great metaphor, I find tremendous romance in the ordinary dailiness of my Catholic life. I used to look at the red brick façade of my church (left) from a mental distance and think, Oh, nice. I used to watch parishioners streaming into St. Mary Star of the Sea every Sunday and think, Oh, Catholics.

Today, I understand that this Church and these parishioners—all on the main street of the town I’ve called home for 35 years—offer me greater riches than the caves of Ali Baba. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true, and what’s more I’m tired, and I’m turning over the rest of this meeting to you, fellow YIMCBC members!

Have you read Orthodoxy? If so, what do you think of Chesterton’s opening chapter? (And if not, it’s only six pages long and you have a week to catch up!)

For the Sixteen Children in My Religious Ed Class

Right away, I knew this class would be different. It wasn’t the post I wrote about it yesterday morning. It was that for the first time in eight weeks of after-school religious education, every child was present and accounted for; and the boys were all sitting in the front rows, the girls in the back.

You expect the boys and girls to segregate themselves in a class of fourth-graders. But you don’t expect the boys to be sitting in front and raising their hands like mad men every time the teacher asks a question. OK, N. and T. seldom raise their hands, too busy talking about Pop Warner Football or something, and C. and K. do so only grudgingly. But every other boy was, like, “Me! Me! Me! Mr. Bull, let me answer that one!”

Is there something that needs saying here about men needing to witness to boys about their faith? I don’t take credit for any of this. I don’t even know how I got roped into teaching religious ed on Wednesday afternoons after school. But fact is, except for a seminarian who drives out from Boston every week to teach a class, I am the only male teacher out of a complement of maybe twelve.

I know, guys work at the office, can’t be in school at 3:30 p.m., but so do many gals, and don’t guys and gals knock off early to see their kids play soccer? And there are retired guys, aren’t there? And guys in school (college, postgrad) who have, let’s face it, cushy schedules, and spend more time staring at their navels in the coffee shop than staring at their books? And how about home office guys, like me, who can make their own schedules? We can be so critical and, let’s be honest, so suspicious of priests who give their whole lives to evangelization and catechesis. Couldn’t a few of us guys—guys blessed with loving wives, guys who go home to a good meal and a bed that isn’t empty—give up an hour a week to teach young boys and girls about the Lord?

This was the day we talked about The Lord’s Prayer. I had the prayer written out on the board, with blanks for all the key words. For example, Our ______________ who art in _____________. I challenged the children to fill in the blanks, out loud, one word at a time, but said the answer would be incomplete without an explanation of what the word means. So we ended discussing things like, Why do we call God Father instead of Mother, and, Where exactly is heaven? I knew that A., our cosmologist, would have an idea about heaven. When we discussed Creation in an earlier class, she had a lot to say about the Big Bang.

There were predictable moments: Of course, no one knew what hallowed means, or even that it has an -ed at the end. Hallow? Hollow? Halloween? Which of course is pretty close, in a way, since Halloween is All Hallows Eve, or the eve of All Saints Day, and hallowed means saintly, or holy. But of course that’s the associative thinking of a college-educated adult male who had ten years in Sunday school, not the thought process of a contemporary fourth grader whose idea of the four Gospel writers may associate with the four Teletubbies.

There are always surprises, too. S. is a willowy waif of a girl with a voice like a faint breeze who sits in the corner farthest from me. I’ve learned not to be surprised by S. When she raises her hand, I know that I need to acknowledge her immediately, moving halfway across the classroom to catch what she has to say, in little more than a whisper, because it’s usually on the mark. S. is the sort of child who can get lost in a class like this, and I’m determined to help find her. Yesterday (it was getting late in the prayer and the hour), no one could come up with any sort of definition of temptation. Finally, S.’s hand went up and I asked her to repeat her answer three times as I moved toward her and finally got close enough to hear her words: “Temptation is like when you’re walking home from school and a man pulls over in a car and offers you candy and tells you to get into the car.” Exactly. S. was connecting the dots, recalling a movie about childhood safety all the grades had watched together a few weeks back.

Then there is M., a reverent boy with a mild speech impediment whom I’ve observed at Sunday Mass. (It’s not clear how many of these kids go to Mass with any regularity, but M. does, I know.) When we arrived at, Give us this day our _________________, M. not only had “daily bread,” but spoke of it as the Eucharist. I wanted to shout, Hallelujah!

I had given the class a homework assignment the week before, to find and bring in the shorter form of The Lord’s Prayer that is reported by Luke. As usual, M., our Mass-goer and (I like to think) junior seminarian, did the homework, no one else.

After the bell rang, and the rest of the class had run off to the parking lot, I helped C. find a new copy of the class workbook. He had lost his and his mother told me he didn’t want to come to school without it. C. is the boy who, during the first class, asked to get a drink of water eight times. I thought he was testing me. We negotiated it down to four times, I think. Now, he doesn’t ask anymore, and I like to think he’s getting something out of the class.

A final note. I had lunch with Father Barnes yesterday and, as he reads this blog, we ended talking about The Lord’s Prayer. Last evening, he sent me a sort of meditation on the prayer from a book by Blessed Columba Marion. It’s worth sharing, especially in connection with children, which we are too:

O Father,
Holy One who art in heaven,
we are your children, seeing that you
wish to be called our Father!

Hallowed, honored, glorified,
be your name.

May your perfections be praised and
exalted more and more on earth: may
we, by our works, manifest in ourselves
the splendor of your grace.

Widen, then, your reign; may it constantly
increase, this Kingdom–which is also
that of your Son, in that you have
constituted Him as its head.

May your Son be truly the King of our souls.
May we express this kingship in us by the
perfect accomplishment of your will;
may we seek constantly, like Him,
to adhere to you by carrying out
your good pleasure, your Eternal thought
concerning us, so that in all things
we may be like your Son Jesus,
and be, through Him,
children worthy
of your love!

Because There Are Depths to Plumb and Heights to Climb

I am preparing to teach a religious education class this afternoon. Once again, I am brought up against how little I know, how much there is to learn about Catholicism. Anyone who thinks Catholicism is for the lobotomized should be required to teach The Lord’s Prayer to fourth graders.

One shocking fact about teaching what used to be known as CCD is how little these kids know, how thin is the Catholic culture in which most are brought up in America today. Like, I should talk, right? The convert? Who was raised in a church-going but hardly Bible-studious Protestant family? Fact is, I know much more than these kids, having attended Sunday school pretty faithfully for ten years. One example of their appalling ignorance: Asked to place the following events on a timeline, they all but draw a blank — (a) birth of Christ, (b) Noah’s ark, (c) Adam & Eve, (d) journeys of St. Paul, (e) birth of Pope Benedict XVI. Some kids, not all, will successfully place A&E; at the head of the line. After that, it’s a crap shoot.

So one of my strategies, as a first-year, you’re-teaching-me-more-than-I’m teaching-you teacher is to throw away the lesson plan and just get one thing through their little skulls every week. Today, The Lords’ Prayer . . .

The book the children use, Christ Our Life (Loyola Press), is quite lovely, and the half-page on The Lord’s Prayer is enough to provoke a short discussion. Illustrated by a picture of Jesus praying and five men watching Him, it reads:

The apostles watched Jesus when he was at prayer. They could see that he knew how to speak to God our Father. Afterward they came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Then Jesus taught them the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. We should try to pray it every day. In this prayer we praise God and ask for all our needs. We ask to be forgiven as we forgive others. We also ask to be saved from evil. 

Nice? Yes.
Enough? Not if I have to teach for an hour.

The teachers’ guide offers half a crutch to lean on, a list of questions to ask the children about the prayer. Examples are:

Who are the men standing in the background? (apostles)
What are they doing? (watching Jesus pray)
What did the apostles want to do when they saw Jesus praying? (They wanted to pray like Jesus.)
And so on . . .

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t instill me with great confidence that I can survive an hour of questions. Like, why do we call God Father and not Mother? Or, why is He “ours”? And that just takes care of two out of fifty-five words.

I have two key sources on my own bookshelf to shed light on The Lord’s Prayer: Catechism of the Catholic Church and Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict, which has a chapter on the prayer. My grand strategy for this week was to read both (not the whole catechism, of course, but the closing section on The Lord’s Prayer, 2759–2865). But I’ve run out of time, as I usually do in my overbooked life. It’s 4:45 a.m. and I have to teach at 3:30 p.m., after working a good part of the day. So I reach in desperation for Peter Kreeft’s Catholic Christianity (Ignatius Press), given to us in RCIA as a sort of Cliff Notes to the Catechism. Not to belabor this post (I have to prepare a class!) and to give Kreeft his due, here are a few choice excerpts:

1. The perfect prayer: It is the perfect prayer because it comes from the perfect Pray-er. . . . Christ gives us these words, not like a book, to read, but like a piece of sheet music, to sing. We must pray this prayer not just with our words but with our minds, and not just with our minds but with our hearts.

2. “Our”: When St. Teresa of Avila prayed the Our Father, she found it almost impossible to get beyond the first two words, for they were like a beautiful country that she wanted to dwell in forever. Until we feel that way, we have not understood these words. 

3. “Father”: The word is not just “Father” but “Abba”—the intimate word “Daddy.” Jesus restored the intimacy we had lost in Eden. 

4. “Who art in heaven”: Heaven is a real place but not a spatial place: it is not anywhere in this universe. . . . One thing we do know about heaven is that it is our home, our destiny, our happiness; and that even now Jesus is preparing a place there especially for us (Jn 14:2–3).

5. The structure of the seven petitions of the Our Father: The structure of this prayer is parallel to the structure of the Ten Commandments, because both follow the structure of reality. Both are divided into two parts: God first, man second. . . . [Like the first three Commandments,] the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer also tell us how to love God . . . The other four tell us how to love our neighbor, since they tell us to pray for “our” primary needs, not just “my” needs.

6. “Hallowed be thy name”: We do not make him holy; but we do make his “name,” his “reputation,” his being-known on earth, holy. We do this by being saints. Saints are the unanswerable argument for Christianity. 

That’s my favorite line in the whole book right there: “Saints are the unanswerable argument for Christianity.” The saints brought me to the Church in the first place.

7.  “Thy kingdom come”: The major obstacle to “Thy kingdom come” is “My kingdom come.” Every person who has ever lived has one absolute choice: “Thy kingdom come” or “My kingdom come,” letting God be God, or playing God. 

8. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”:  The way for God’s kingdom to come is the easiest thing in the world to understand and the hardest thing in the world to accomplish: simply turning over all our will to God. . . . “Thy will be done” is both submissive and active. For his kingdom comes by our submitting to his will and by our working to carry it out.

9. “Give us this day our daily bread”: Does God love us less than our earthly fathers? Or does he have less power to give us what we need? Or less wisdom to know what that is? Put these three non-negotiable dogmas of God’s love, God’s power, and God’s wisdom together with the fact that Christ has made God our Father, and you get a totally realistic, reasonable, and non-sentimental basis for the total trust that this petition expresses.

10. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”: It is intrinsically impossible for us to receive God’s forgiveness if we do not forgive others, as it is impossible for someone with a closed fist to receive a gift. . . . To forgive is to will good to those who do not deserve it, as God does to us.

11. “Lead us not into temptation”: “Temptation” could also be interpreted as “trials,” so that this petition means we humbly confess our weakness and ask God to be gentle to us, as promised: “A bruised reed he will not break” (Is 42:3).

12. “But deliver us from evil”: Christ puts this petition last. We tend to put it first. The child puts it first; his first prayer is usually: “God, help me!” This is a perfectly good prayer, and the greatest saints never outgrow it; but they outgrow putting it first. Instructed by the Lord’s Prayer, they wrap it in adoration. 

13. “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever. Amen.”: This doxology (“word of praise”) is not in Scripture, but the Church added it very early in her history. It is right to end the prayer as it began—with adoration and praise. . . . The Lord’s Prayer is not a mere thought or wish but an act (an “act of prayer”). In fact, each petition of the Lord’s Prayer, if honestly meant, is sacramental: it effects what it signifies.

On retreat last week, Father Matthew invited us to think more deeply about prayer. I have tried to do that here.  

Now, if I can just communicate some of this to fourth-graders . . .  

For All the Saints: Margaret of Scotland

I came back from retreat Thursday realizing that there is only one vow I have ever taken in my life, or am likely to take, the marriage vow. I woke up this morning to find Margaret of Scotland featured in the Office of Readings. What could a Hungarian mother of six, dead for over nine hundred years, have to teach me about matrimony?

Here is the reading the Church offers in honor of Margaret of Scotland:

From the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world of the Second Vatican Council

Husband and wife, by the convenant of marriage, are no longer two, but one flesh. By their intimate union of persons and of actions they give mutual help and service to each other, experience the meaning of their unity, and gain an ever deeper understanding of it day by day.

This intimate union in the mutual self-giving of two persons, as well as the good of the children, demands full fidelity from both, and an indissoluble unity between them. 

Christ the Lord has abundantly blessed this richly complex love, which springs from the divine source of love and is founded on the model of his union with the Church.

In earlier times God met his people in a covenant of love and fidelity. So now the Savior of mankind, the Bridegroom of the Church, meets Christian husbands and wives in the sacrament of matrimony. Further, he remains with them in order that, as he loved the Church and gave himself up for her, so husband and wife may, in mutual self-giving, love each other with perpetual fidelity. 

True married love is caught up in to God’s love; it is guided and enriched by the redeeming power of Christ and the saving action of the Church, in order that the partners may be effectively led to God and receive help and strength in the sublime responsibility of parenthood. 

Christian partners are therefore strengthened, and as it were consecrated, by a special sacrament for the duties and the dignity of their state. By the power of this sacrament they fulfill their obligations to each other and to their family and are filled with the spirit of Christ. This spirit pervades their whole lives with faith, hope and love. Thus they promote their own perfection and each other’s sanctification, and so contribute together to the greater glory of God.

Hence, with parents leading the way by example and family prayer, their children—indeed, all within the family circle—will find it easier to make progress in natural virtues, in salvation and in holiness. Husband and wife, raised to the dignity and the responsibility of parenthood, will be zealous in fulfilling their task as educators, especially in the sphere of religious education, a task that is primarily their own. 

Children, as active members of the family, contribute in their own way to the holiness of their parents. With the love of grateful hearts, with loving respect and trust, they will return the generosity of their parents and will stand by them as true sons and daughters when they meet with hardship and the loneliness of old age.

What does Margaret of Scotland have to say to Katie and me? As one of our children might write, though with a different nuance, “OMG! OMG!”

Because of Joan of Arcadia VII

There are a few throwaway episodes in the two-year history of “Joan of Arcadia,” the TV series about a latter-day Joan of Arc that had a short, lamented two-year run (2003–2005). One of these is “Drive, He Said,” season 1, episode 10. The following week’s tale, “The Uncertainty Principle,” is anything but a throwaway.

“Drive, He Said” has a good trigger and an explosive climax, but it’s little more than melodrama, lacking the meaty exchanges between Joan and God that make the best episodes compelling. Older-brother Kevin, confined to a wheelchair following a car accident and now working as a fact-checker at the local daily paper, has okayed an editorial accusing his police-chief dad of racism. Dad leaves the house determined to prove to his son that he is anything but and promptly pulls over a speeder he thinks is an important white official. The car does belong to the official, but the driver is a white punk who has already shot and killed his parole officer and has now stolen the car. Punk takes Dad for a ride, a drama that preoccupies the rest of the episode. God’s contribution to the plot? He (as a plumber) and She (as a test administrator) tells Joan to (a) get her driver’s license today and (b) take the new license for a spin in the country. This leads to a climactic scene in which Joan and younger brother Luke come upon their kidnapped Dad, who has already contrived his escape from the felon, on a dark country road. God has only a couple of interesting comments:

God: Being an adult isn’t merely about risking your own well-being. It’s about risking others’—in cars, in love, in family. Hurting others is always a possibility. That’s what’s difficult about being an adult, facing the harsh fact that you may hurt others, even when you don’t want to.
Joan: Then there’s a flaw in the design. And whose fault is that? 
God: It might help if you think of the universe as an obstacle course. There’s no flaw in the design.  

There’s little flaw in the design of “The Uncertainty Principle,” for my money, one of the best season-1 episodes. First, a confession: Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom, left with Amber Tamblyn as Joan) is my favorite character in the series. A rebellious rabbi’s daughter and Joan’s disaffected pal, she dresses tough and talks tougher. Most kids in school think Grace is a lesbian. “The Uncertainty Principle” is her coming-out episode.

We’ve been waiting four or five episodes for Luke to invite Grace to be his partner for the school science fair. At the beginning of this episode, he finally asks her. She thinks he’s asking her to the prom, “The Crystal Ball,” and retorts with her usual gracelessness, “What is it with these sanctioned mating rituals that make everybody drool over each other like zombies?” When Luke says he’s talking about the science fair, Grace says she has already agreed to that. Luke suggests they develop a project based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. And—pretty rare for a TV show about teens—he explains in simple terms: “There’s no way to know where a nucleus is with any certainty. The observer is always changing what we observe. Reality itself is indeterminate. And atoms, the very building blocks of matter, are mere clouds of possibility.” Grace answers thoughtfully, “Quit eating my grapes!”

Luke’s friend Friedman (who has already accused Luke of being gay because he is attracted to Grace) says to Grace: “Guess we won’t see you at the dance tomorrow night.”

Grace: Based on what?
Friedman: Based on the assumption that you won’t wear a dress.
Grace: Well, guess what, Galileo? Your assumptions suck. And we’ll see you at the dance. Now, beat it, before I give you a wedgie.

At the dance, Grace, fed up with Friedman’s taunts, throws off her leather jacket, rips off Luke’s jacket, and wraps the happy seventeen-year-old boy in his first passionate embrace. For the rest of the evening, Luke and Grace boogie up a storm—to Friedman’s amazement.

I am not a physicist and cannot tell you whether Luke’s is a fair summary of the uncertainty principle. But it is a pretty interesting view of reality, in a divinely created world of free will, one in which one of the most important choices is what we look at and where. 

Both Joan and her father choose to look in dark places. God, as a pierced Goth youth, tells Joan to invite the meanest, saddest, most antisocial kid in the whole school, Ramsay, to The Crystal Ball. Meanwhile, Dad, as police chief, decides to look where no one has previously dared: into the chain of corruptibility in Arcadia’s city government that reaches all the way to the mayor’s office. Both of these instances of observation have far-reaching consequences. Dad’s investigation leads to an FBI raid and (in later episodes) job troubles for Dad. Joan’s inviting Ramsay to the dance plays out with more interesting twists.

The dénouement is set up by the first of two conversations between God and Joan. Goth God enters the school library to find Joan reading a book on self-defense.

God: I wouldn’t worry about self-defense. (God pulls out a book entitled “Lost Souls.”) Joan, have I ever endangered you?
Joan: Well, you never told me to ask evil out on a date before.
God: Evil is not a word to use lightly. It’s only the darkest end of a broad spectrum.
Joan: You mean like light?
God: Exactly like light. Nobody is born in total darkness. Most of you live on the grey end of the spectrum, a lie here and there, jealousy, wrath. But you only get to absolute evil by doing one thing after another till eventually you’re transformed.
Joan (looking at the book “Lost Souls”) Like . . . into a monster?
God: A monster is a creature with no consciousness. They’re extremely rare, but they do exist.
Joan: Have you watched the news? I’m not sure they’re so rare.
God: Almost everybody has some light somewhere. And light is always worth fighting for.
Joan: Ok. So I’m supposed to find Ramsey’s light?
God: I just want you to listen and observe. Be present.
Joan: That’s it?
God: (No answer)

Accosted at The Crystal Ball by vice principal Gavin Price for carrying a bottle of whiskey in his pocket, Ramsay flees the dance. The DJ at the dance (God again) tells Joan to follow him. What seems to be another melodramatic ending, as in the previous episode, leads to a great concluding scene. Joan hops in Ramsay’s truck; he drives to a junkyard, pulls a gun, then has an armed stand-off with Joan’s dad, who finally talks the boy out of his pistol and leads him away to custody. Joan is saved; so is Dad; Joan is grounded; and then . . .

The following day Joan meets Old Lady God in the school corridor. God is holding a tray of cupcakes and wearing a button that reads: “Help Soccer. Eat More Cookies!” Joan is upset: Ramsay is going to jail.

Joan: What do you want me to fail at this time?
God: Now, what makes you think you failed? You did exactly what I asked you to do. You observed. 
Joan: What good did that do? 
God: Observation is a more powerful force than you could possibly reckon. The invisible, the overlooked, and the unobserved are those that are most in danger of reaching the end of the spectrum. They lose the last of their light, from there anything can happen. 
Joan: Fine, I observed Ramsay, his life is still ruined. 
God: His life wasn’t the only one at stake.

Then in a chilling evocation of the Columbine shootings, God shows Joan in a vision what would have happened if Ramsay had not been arrested. He was preparing to open fire at school, and students, teachers, even Ramsay himself would have died if Joan had not observed and been present to him.

God: For each of these there are twelve more that would have been altered irreparably, people alive today whose lives were altered by you—by the simple fact of being present—by entering the light—by joining the dance.

To Worship with Mitch

I had a chance to talk today for the first time with a fellow parishioner I’ll call Mitch. I’ve noticed Mitch at daily Mass. He is younger than me by a lot but looks like he could be older. Mitch has gray hair, weathered skin, and the seemly humility of a man in his seventies. Mitch has mileage on his tires.

Mitch admitted to me when our conversation was only a few minutes old that life has beat him up more than a little—enough so that after untold years Mitch is returning to the Catholic Church for the first time since ninth grade. Mitch does not exhibit the kind of socioeconomic profile I was encouraged to develop when I grew up, but now that I am finally setting aside childish things, he is a man I am proud to recognize as my brother. This is an amazing thing about the Church: you can talk with an odd stranger for less time than it takes to read the sports page, only to recognize him as a long-lost friend.

In our conversation, Mitch told me he is the son of devout Catholics. He went to parochial school in an old New England manufacturing city, the kind where today the unemployment rate is pushing 25 percent and the felony rate is somewhere north of that. He left the Church, he said, when a trusted priest failed to offer sensible answers to Mitch’s most searching theological questions. Without pride, false humility, or dramatization, Mitch admitted to me that he has since survived an unhappy marriage that is in the process of being annulled. He works in the building trades—not as a boss but as a simple “apprentice.” He seems to like saying that he works for a carpenter, but when I asked him if the carpenter’s name begins with J, Mitch only smiled and shook his head. A boss named Jesus or Joseph would not be the only coincidence in Mitch’s renewed Catholic life.

Mitch explained to me that he has been brought back to the Church by one person: the Blessed Mother. He sees Her everywhere: in the last three numbers on a lottery ticket, in an oil slick. It was a book on Medjugorje that first called Mitch back to the Church—a volume he claims he read in the local library even though the librarian there now claims the library not only doesn’t have the book, but never did. Mitch only shakes his head again. When I told him that one of the truly determinative experiences in my becoming Catholic was visiting Lourdes in my early twenties, Mitch, who may never be able to afford a trip to Lourdes or Medjugorje, said, “I can only imagine. I can only imagine.”

Mitch admitted to me with some chagrin, “One of the things that disturbs me is, I haven’t learned to witness yet. I know the Blessed Mother has called me to Her Son for a reason, but I don’t know what purpose She has in mind for me yet.” I told Mitch that I had experienced the same disturbance when I was in RCIA. What am I supposed to do, I thought, stand on a soapbox in front of the church and hand out leaflets? Walk door to door preaching the Word of God? I wanted to do something, and now, two years later, I have finally found a vehicle that suits me: this blog. I told Mitch about my blog, and he only shrugged again, like, Yeah, I might really check that out some day, though I doubt he will.

When I asked Mitch what he likes doing when he isn’t working or going to Mass, he said reading. “I’d like to go into a room and read theology for the rest of my life,” he said, and to hear him say this is to realize that Mitch is not only not crazy but in fact very intelligent. I pointed out someone at Church who is a Ph.D candidate in philosophy, and our conversation ended almost immediately. Mitch went off to talk with the philosopher, which I am not.

I do not propose Mitch as a typical Catholic. His intensity, his sincerity, and his single-minded devotion to the Blessed Mother are enough to scare away all but serious seekers. But I do propose Mitch as a reason to be Catholic: humble, smart, determined to grow in holiness, and from today onward, someone I am happy to call friend.

(The lovely image of Jesus as a carpenter is available at this link.)

To Make Hard Choices

Two weeks ago today at Confession, on the eve of All Saints, I was asked to meditate on the Beatitudes. I gave them thought and then moved on. Now, after a sleepless night, and following a retreat that seems to have acted like a time bomb, I find I’ve been blindsided by the Beatitudes.

How sneaky thou art, Lord Jesus!

I described the three-day retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, in a previous post. And I elaborated on personal particulars in a second post, which was actually written first. This was my third retreat at a monastery since I was received into the Church 20 months ago. I returned from the first two retreats—at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts—riding a high. The Spencer retreat seemed to leave me on the same level I arrived on.

Two days later, Katie and I are at a reunion of family gathered for my mother’s 80th birthday, the first time we’ve all been together—children, grandchildren, inlaws and assorted outlaws—since my father’s funeral 14 months ago. As Katie and I approached and then entered this inner circle of family, a conflict arose, as they so often can in family, and I was invited by circumstance, or perhaps by the prompting of my own conscience, to make a hard choice.

It is a choice that forces me to admit that I may have been wrong; a choice that requires giving up something quite substantial (I swallow hard this morning, just thinking of it); a choice that means letting go of something in which I have taken pride (perhaps justifiably); a choice that, to embrace it, effectively makes me meeker than someone I consider a paragon of meekness in the best sense; a choice that I know will make me mourn; but also a choice that will go a long way to bringing peace in an important relationship.

Perhaps the reader can apply the above very general paragraph to the specifics of his or her own life. We’re talking, I say, about a hard choice.

I made the choice late yesterday, in the form of a peace offering (for lack of a better term), but at the time it was the kind of gift of self that you know is likely going to backfire in resentment: Do you see how much I’ve given up for you?! How could you do this to me?! And so on. By the time I went to sleep about 10 p.m., resentment was lurking like a troll beneath the bridge.

I woke up at midnight with a headache (that extra glass at dinner) but also with a deeper awareness of the issue at hand. And soon I was thinking of the Beatitudes, or they were thinking of me. To recapture the insight verbally is especially hard now in the morning’s light, but I was not merely thinking meek (check), mourn (check), peace (check)—the Beatitudes, that fits. Something much better had happened. A space had opened itself in my heart that I knew would make it possible for me—not to do these things (alone, I’m not strong enough)—but to beg for the grace to be merciful, meek, and peaceful in this difficult situation, in this challenging relationship. And particularly to beg for the grace to be able to offer this gift without resentment, which is so hard for me ordinarily that I would almost term it inconceivable.

If any credit is due, it might go to my confessor who asked me to meditate on the Beatitudes, but I think it should go all the more to the monks at Spencer and in particular to Father Matthew, our retreat director, whose morning conferences were—what—sneaky? An opening moment of silence, a brief Gospel reading, then a slow and thoughtful elucidation of elements of Pope Benedict’s theology. These three conferences were decidedly not the kind of charismatic or inspirational presentations that whip a man into a frenzy of faith and then leave him high and dry two days later.

Two days later, I find myself still thinking of Spencer and of an insight at 1:30 in the morning. Today, I will pray and, yes, beg that my heart remains open to this gift, both given and received.

Because Monks are Just Soldiers in Awkward Clothes

Three days among the Trappist fathers and brothers of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, convinced me that monastic life is both less weird and more difficult than I had previously imagined. It was like discovering that monks are not space aliens, but are instead an elite unit of Navy Seals. (The photo is Abbot John O’Connor, whose life spanned the Civil War and World War II, 1864–1945.)

I described Spencer and some of my personal experiences on retreat there in a previous post. The first evening at supper in the retreat house, ten retreatants, all men, ate together. I looked around the small dining room and saw a typical distribution of American males, young and old, fat and thin—just guys. Except for the silence, and a lecture on the Gospel of Matthew piped in while we ate, it could have been anywhere. After dinner, we might have headed to a sports bar. I knew we were missing the Steelers-Broncos game on Monday Night Football.

The following morning, we attended Lauds together at 6 a.m. It was our first chance to sit at the rear of the nave in the abbey church, looking past the choir monks toward the main altar (as in the above photo from the abbey Web site). Mass follows Lauds, and during the Benedictus I knew that the priest traveling with me would be going to the sacristy to vest, so that he could concelebrate Mass. Then, as the Benedictus began, not one but eight of my nine fellow retreatants went to vest. All but one of these American guys was a priest! I had had no idea.

If these priests on retreat were just guys, I started thinking that the monks were super-guys. I talked Wednesday morning with one of two friends from Beverly who accompanied me. We shared impressions from two days of sitting at the back of the nave for Lauds, Mass, and Vespers. (For the offices of Vigils and Compline, we sat in side chapels off the main altar.)

I commented on the diversity of the monks. It was another experience of seeing “just guys,” maybe with shorter hair and longer shirts than most, but guys all the same. One could see the age range: everything from just out of school to doddering on a cane. One could see the ethnic and racial mix: an African American priest, several Asian brothers, what looked like a Nordic youth.

I commented to my friend that I suspected the 1947 memoir The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (left) had led to a huge increase of vocations to monastic life following World War II. He agreed, adding, “And I bet the war had a lot to do with it too.” I immediately thought, Yeah, all those GIs looking for something to do with their lives, but my friend added a different spin. He said, “I bet some of those returning soldiers had some pretty heavy things on their consciences.”

Whether or not this was true, it got me thinking seriously of monks as soldiers. This sense was confirmed by my experience of Vigils, the longest office of the day, lasting usually from 3:30 a.m. sharp (monks are prompt) to about 4:10.

I set my alarm each morning for 2:50 so that I could arrive in the side chapel by 3:00 and say a rosary before the office began. I was the first to arrive in the church, even before the sacristan could be heard shuffling about in sandals, lighting the few lamps used for Vigils, ribboning the lectionaries, and so on. In these twenty minutes before the first brothers began padding almost inaudibly down the stairs from their dormitory into the choir, I realized something about night, about monks, about courage.

God made the night. He separated the darkness from the light, calling the dark times “night.” Night is dark, mysterious, and even in this abbey church before Vigils, a bit terrifying. The silence here in Spencer, in high grazing country fifteen miles from the hum of truck tires on the Mass Pike, is intense. The faint humming sound I hear is some combination of breeze off the abbey walls and the current of my own cardiovascular system. There is something to be sought here, perhaps something to be found, maybe even something to be feared. Yes, it does put “the fear of God” into a man.

Anyone, monk or man, grunt or Navy Seal, who enters this darkness every night and makes it his own personal patrol is moving in a realm most mortals would prefer to sleep through. I don’t wonder that the monks of St. Joseph Abbey pray side by side, virtually shoulder to shoulder, in long uniforms that keep them warm and probably comfort them. This is hard man’s work they are doing. And like the men and women of our armed forces, they are doing it for you and me.

Thanks to St. Martin, Thanks to Fr. Matthew

It’s a surprising path that leads a man from a 4th-century saint to a 21st-century monk and home again, but that’s a summary of my week—on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, beginning Monday evening; home in Beverly on Thursday afternoon, a day ahead of schedule. Of such minor miracles this Catholic life is made.

Like many Catholic guys, I suppose, I have wondered about the monastic life: would I? could I? (though never) should I? The answer to that third question is, of course, I shouldn’t. I am married. Not gonna happen. Retreats, though, allow a man to dally with monasticism, like reading a good novel over a four-day period, then putting it down and going out to rake the leaves.

I’m sure I will write again before the weekend is up about my experience of Trappist life, viewed from the outside as a visitor to Spencer. But what is burning to be written right now is why I came home 24 hours ahead of schedule.

If I had been blogging Wednesday, instead of under enforced lockdown (no internet service in guest quarters at the abbey), I might have written about St. Martin of Tours. That’s him on the horse in an El Greco painting of his—legendary?—meeting with a beggar. He gave the beggar half of his cloak. Wednesday, November 11, is Martin’s feast day.

There’s enough written about St. Martin elsewhere that I can focus on the things Martin and I have in common. He was the son of a Roman military officer (check, Dad was a WWII veteran) who moved west into Gaul, or present-day France, to follow his father’s career (check, we moved from Minnesota to Connecticut when I was 10 and Dad took a new position). Martin was a convert (check) who favored the life of a hermit (check, or at least Katie thinks sometimes that I want to be a hermit, and perhaps I give her reason). But here’s the thing: Continually through his career as a hermit, then as a bishop, then as what amounted to an international statesman, Martin found himself pulled into the public arena, into engagement with his fellow men, while all the time feeling drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. It is in this tension between retirement and engagement, between the hermit and the man of action, that I recognize Martin of Tours as my brother.

Already by Wednesday, St. Martin’s feast day and only my second full day in Spencer, I was thinking much and fondly of my engaged life in Beverly, my vowed life as husband, father, bread-winner, and lay Catholic.

Then came Father Matthew. Our retreat director has been living on the grounds at Spencer for 58 years, or since the year I was born. I use the phrase “on the grounds” advisedly because St. Joseph’s Abbey has a long history that began in Nova Scotia in 1819. In 1950, the abbey, long since moved to Cumberland, Rhode Island, burnt to a Gothic cinder. By the following summer, just as I was being born 3,000 miles away in Oakland, California, Matthew (then a novice) and others were building new abbey buildings in Spencer, from fieldstone they quarried themselves. The abbey church (above right) and chapter house (triangle, left-center) are the public face of a huge property that today includes four going businesses: Trappist® Preserves, The Holy Rood Guild (manufacturers of high-end vestments), a bookstore, and year-round retreats.

Father Matthew (right) led three conferences, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning—after serving us breakfast in a true gesture of Trappist hospitality. He proposed to teach us a few things about Pope Benedict’s theology, and each morning offered both nuggets of general interest and (for me) personal insights. This is not the place to get overly personal, and some of the insights were deeply so. The upshot of Thursday morning’s conference was that I went afterward to Father Matthew for confession. Again, let’s not get personal; it’s enough to say that for my penance, Father Matthew asked me to sit before the Blessed Sacrament in the small Adoration chapel in the Spencer guest quarters and meditate on a particular matter.

I spent about half an hour in the Adoration chapel. About fifteen minutes in, I shifted my attention from the Blessed Sacrament, beautifully placed inside a silver dove that hovers over the altar, to an icon of Jesus on the right wall of the chapel. I had never really looked at an icon before, I mean looked at one, but as I did so now and continued to meditate on the matter Father Matthew and I had discussed, a clear thought came to me: Go home. Go home now. Swirling lights and ethereal music were conspicuously absent from this experience of looking and thinking. I only knew that it was time to go home. I arranged for my two friends from Beverly to drive home together and made like the Lone Ranger, disappearing before lunch.

After I finish this post (and she completes a Costco run), Katie and I are going out for a movie-and-dinner date. My experience in Spencer was, for me, a minor miracle, without the lights or heavenly choirs. My life in Beverly is the major miracle, and after three-plus days of “monastic” living, I’m engaged again, and married more than ever.

On Retreat

This blog will go quiet now, at least until Friday 11/13, perhaps as long as a week. With two friends from the parish, I am going on retreat at a monastery nearby. I may have some things to say about the experience when I get back. Meanwhile, if you are relatively new to YIM Catholic or just want to click around for a few entertaining minutes, here are some early posts that you might find worthwhile and/or enjoyable:

Or you could just go to this post and follow all the links. It pretty much says it all.