Survey #1: The Results are In!

For the first few hours after my post hit the Web, there were no answers to my question, “What poem has inspired you in your religious life?” and I started asking myself, “Don’t these people read?!” It was just about when I had started to lose faith (isn’t it always the way?) that a trickle turned to a stream, and I can now report to you a fine list of verse and other odds and ends that you might turn to next time you lose faith.

First—I should have predicted this—there were Psalms (especially 23) and hymns proposed. Of the latter, my favorite is “For All the Saints,” which happens to be the title of my very first post. Another suggestion, “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist Did Pray,” is new to me, mostly because, unlike “For All the Saints,” it is not featured in the Episcopal hymnal from which I sang as a young teen. The reader cited especially this lovely verse, praying for unity:

We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

A personal note on Psalm 23: I sometimes use it to put myself to sleep at night, but in the King James translation which I learned almost as early as I learned The Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. . . .” I understand that the current version in use in the Catholic liturgy is more accessible to the contemporary American ear, but every time I get to “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose,” I cringe. I am aware that this is not the desired response, that perhaps it is even confessable—a terrible moral quandary! But I digress.

Ferde proposed two items, one of them a poem and both too long to cite, but they’re good ones: “The Divine Comedy ought to get a mention here,” he wrote. “A little long to post, but what sticks with me is Dante’s polling of the population of hell.” My fishing buddy (as in fishers of men, usually, we don’t catch many real fish) went on: “If I can stray from poetry, James Agee’s short novel A Death in the Family is deeply spiritual. I read it over 40 years ago and it’s still with me. This novel and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with Walker Percy) are Agee’s only notable work. He squandered his enormous talent writing movie reviews for The Nation magazine, drinking to excess, and chain-smoking cigarettes. He got out of a cab in New York one afternoon and dropped dead right there on the sidewalk. Not yet 50.”

Of the poets cited, Francis Thompson (pictured here) gets a gold star, as The Hound of Heaven is the only poem cited by more than one reader. Father Hopkins (Gerard Manley) is probably the winner, though, not only because I have already written about him here (and all matters of taste on this blog are adjudicated finally by moi-même) but also because readers cited two of his poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire and God’s Grandeur, with its great final couplet (“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”). Meanwhile, I’ll give a silver star to W. H. Auden, since I had already written a post on his “Ballad of Barnaby,” which triggered this survey, which prompted yet another reader to cite Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Said the reader, “It’s not what you’d call upbeat, but it’s a great portrayal of our constant longing for something better, something which we as Christians find in God.”

There were votes for John Donne (“Holy Sonnet XIV“), William Butler Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium“), G. K. Chesterton (“The Ballad of the White Horse,” much too long to cite but available here), and the always perplexing Ezra Pound (“Ballad of the Goodly Fere“). Female poets included Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (“Aurora Leigh“) and (sweet!) “my Aunt, Sr. Marie Emmanuel Streit, S.C. (1904-1991) Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati,” who wrote “Aspiration”:

A wild canary flashes by,
(like arrow sped from unseen bow
To pierce a target in the sky!)
I watch its swift unswerving flight
And think how very glad I’d be
If I could wing as sure a way
O Heart of God, my goal, to Thee!

Finally, ’tis strange, there was a citation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, surely among the darkest of English-language plays but inspiring to at least one Catholic. I’ll leave you pondering this bit of verse from the Bard:

But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

Because She is Love, I am One Voice

In the Office of Readings today we learn how Thérèse of Lisieux came to understand her vocation: She realized that she was too insignificant to be an apostle, prophet, teacher, or martyr. Instead, she realized, “My call is love.” This leads to a question: In the great body of the Church, what, Lord, am I?

It’s a matter of “knowing one’s place,” isn’t it? As a recent convert, I realize sometimes that (a) my place is near the back of the line, but also that (b) people will see or hear me precisely because I’m a convert at the back of the line. We know this: converts can be very inspiring to cradle Catholics.

But while I’m standing here in line, what, Lord, should I be doing? Giving speeches? Handing out food? Caring for the sick? If I know myself and my talents, such as they are, I’m pretty sure I know what I should be doing. I should be singing.

I have always loved to sing, and when fellow parishioner Nancy Patch invited me to join the choir this summer at St. Mary Star of the Sea, I jumped at the chance. I can read music, sort of, not the way Fred, our choirmaster, can read, not even the way a good sight singer can read. But I can find my way around a clef, with or without accidentals.

I used to stand beside my father and mother in the Episcopal Church, where the hymns were always written out in four parts (I wish our Catholic hymnal had parts), and I would muddle my way through the tenor line until about age fourteen, then after that the bass line. And I loved hearing how my voice, when on pitch, blended with the melody.

This is what I love about singing in the St. Mary’s choir. Not being a soloist, heaven forbid, my voice just isn’t sweet enough, but blending, riding the wave of the basses behind me, and adding just a bit of water, or maybe sometimes oil, to the wave. The few times I’ve sung with the choir so far have been joyous times, adding my voice to the heavenly chorus (the choir loft is very high), and feeling the church fill with our harmonies. Of course, having a choirmaster like Fred makes a big difference.

Today, on the feast of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, this seems to me a good way of looking at this blog—another place, a tiny niche, within the great body of the Church, where I can make my small contribution. There are many kinds of bloggers, I already know this, after just six weeks. In the Catholic blogosphere, there are great prophets and prophetesses, like Elizabeth over at The Anchoress, and there are teachers, like Greg at The Deacon’s Bench and Rocco at Whispers in the Loggia. There are some wonderful Catholic-mother blogs, like Blessed Among Men and Minnesota Mom. None of these “parts” suits me.

I’m happy being down at the lower end of the register, riding the wave of basses stronger than I am. Let my sound be only harmonious, Lord. Let it help fill out the heavenly harmony, filling your Church with hymns of praise.

Now, off to North Carolina, to see my daughter!

Because of The Old-Fashioned, Round-Faced, Foreign-Looking Nun in the Picture at My Grandmother’s House (Guest Post)

Now and then I’ll publish guest posts from friends of this blog around the globe. This lovely piece was written by a long-lost schoolmate of mine who prefers to remain anonymous. I’ve already written about Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux) in recent days, so I’ll let my old chum observe her feast day here.

Catholic tradition is something I happily left behind as a teenager in the 1960s. Back then, Sacred Heart of Jesus portraits, scapulars, the Legion of Mary, the picture of an old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey, no hamburgers at Friday-night cookouts, calendars with fish symbols, the word Mass itself, and that other “Catholic stuff” embarrassed me. Most of my friends were Protestant. Catholic devotions were uncool and kind of un-American too. I was happy to be free of them.

But being free of Catholicism led to being free of God, which did not work out so well. By age thirty, I was asking Him for help and got it. I have been back in the Catholic Church, more or less, for twenty years now—done some reading and made some retreats along the way. But this year, I awakened. I now consciously attune myself to the liturgical calendar. I go to confession frequently and Mass as often as three times a week. This summer, a week-long silent retreat using St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises had a huge impact. The retreat included a one-on-one general confession with the retreat master. I attend Latin Mass at least once a week. I even bought a secondhand Sacred Heart of Jesus print for ten dollars, frame and all. Then I spent way too much getting it framed with olive wood from Italy.

This year, I have discovered that the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture I used to see at my grandmother’s house wasn’t so old-fashioned after all. In 1887, fourteen-year-old Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, France, “code-pinked” a Pope. Thérèse sought to enter a Carmelite convent at age fifteen, years before the normal age of twenty. She had already confronted her French bishop at his home and been told no. During a papal audience in Rome, Thérèse—who had been instructed not to speak to the Pope—grabbed Pope Leo XIII’s hand and begged a “great favor.” When the Pope diplomatically suggested that she do whatever French authorities decided, her response was to put her clasped hands on his knee and pretty much tell him his answer was not good enough. Thérèse needed a yes. All she got was Pope Leo’s finger on her lips and a blessing as the Swiss Guards pulled her away. It is said that the old Pope followed her with his eyes for a long time.

Three months after her fifteenth birthday, Thérèse Martin did enter the Carmel at Lisieux. Inside, she took the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Less than ten years later, at age twenty-four, ravaged by tuberculosis, Thérèse died an obscure nun. In the months before her death, she had said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.” She also said, “I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth.” On October 4, 1897, the door to Lisieux Carmel, a door that can only be opened from inside, swung open. Thérèse Martin’s simple coffin was carried out past three of her biological sisters who, as Carmelites themselves, did not leave the convent, even for the burial of their own sister. A priest and a handful of relations and friends walked the simple coffin to the cemetery.

As was customary, the Carmel at Lisieux sent out a written account of Thérèse’s life to other Carmels. In part because she died so young and was not well known, the Carmel decided to send Thérèse’s own account of her life, known now as Story of a Soul. In the three years before her death, while very sick, she had written the account in a copybook using a pencil during the little spare time she had. The book went out to other Carmels in October 1898. Within a few weeks, letters arrived at Lisieux asking for more copies. Then came the first letters describing miraculous physical healings and spiritual conversions connected with Thérèse’s book. Such letters have never stopped coming. They come from all over the world.

On March 26, 1923, the door at Carmel Lisieux that can only be opened from inside swung open again for Thérèse Martin’s coffin. Just as they did twenty-six years before, her three biological sisters stood inside the threshold as Thérèse came past. Only this time, instead of one priest and a handful of mourners outside, there were two hundred priests and fifty thousand faithful who had escorted the coffin from the cemetery. When the coffin was lifted from the grave, the scent of roses filled the air. As the solemn procession from the cemetery to Carmel passed by him, a paralyzed soldier regained the use of his legs. At the gate to Carmel, a blind girl regained her sight.

On May 17, 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death and thirty-eight years after code-pinking gentle old Pope Leo, Thérèse Martin returned to the Vatican. Over two hundred thousand people from all over the world jammed St. Peter’s and the square outside as Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse of Lisieux. The bells in every church in Rome pealed. She is officially known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus because that was her name inside Carmel. But Thérèse Martin is known everywhere as Thérèse of Lisieux.

So the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture at my grandmother’s house was not so old-fashioned after all. St. Thérèse was only eight years older than my grandmother. My grandmother was six when Thérèse met the Pope and told him to change his answer.

Most of what I know about St. Thérèse’s life comes from this thirty-four-page summary of her life by Msgr. Vernon Johnson, an Englishman: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/LISIEUX.htm. In 1924, Johnson was a pious, highly regarded Anglican pastor, very happy in his faith and ministry. He had already looked into Story of a Soul and knew it to be a “sentimental,” “artificial,” and “un-English” “Roman Catholic scheme.” Even when he finally picked up the book to read it, the first two chapters “did not appeal” to him and were “difficult to get through.”

St. Thérèse apparently did not view all that as much of an obstacle. Johnson kept reading till “long after midnight. . . . All I can say is that it moved my whole being as no other piece of writing has ever done,” he wrote. Johnson entered Catholic seminary at age forty-three, and Thérèse had her greatest English-language champion. The quotes above come from the first few pages of Msgr. Johnson’s classic work of apologetics, One Lord, One Faith (Ignatius Press).

Survey #1: Because of What Poem?

The positive comments on this blog have been astonishing since I began posting just six weeks ago. Few comments have touched me more than one from “Mary” this afternoon. In Catholic-land, “Mary” is almost as anonymous as “Anonymous,” so I have no idea who Mary is. But she picked up on my post about Julian’s baptism and urged me on. You can find Mary’s comment beneath Julian’s story. It’s her P.S. that sparks this post:

When days arrive, as they will, that you need a break, be sure, we will understand. Just ask us to lift you up, throw out a topic and we’ll all help.

Mary, I’m taking you up on your offer . . . NOW! There’s not a moment to waste. So let’s turn this post into a survey, and let anyone and everyone answer with comments.

In my previous post, I wrote about W. H. Auden’s poem “The Ballad of Barnaby,” explaining how it inspired me. Auden was a High Anglican, with a clear devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the idea of Barnaby tumbling before a statue of Mary is touching to me, for reasons I try to explain.

Now, over to you, gentle reader. Mary, here’s my topic: What poem has inspired you in your religious life? It doesn’t have to be a “Catholic” poem. For example, you could cite:

Anything by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, about whom I wrote in a previous post, or . . .

John Milton, “On His Blindness“—In just fourteen lines this sonnet moves Job-like from suffering over life’s injustice to a resplendent acceptance of God’s will. The final line is a rebuke to each of us who would win God’s favor with doing, doing, and more doing: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road“—As the first American poet celebrated by the gay community, Whitman is not exactly a Catholic icon. But this poem was an anthem for me for many years, especially in its final evocation of friendship, something I’ve found most truly only now within the Catholic Church: “Mon enfant, I give you my hand! I give you my love, more precious than money! I give you myself, before preaching or law! Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”

Dylan Thomas, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London“—I have no idea what Thomas’s religious orientation was, if any. He seems to have known more about spirits than about the Holy Spirit. But the final line of this elegy for a girl killed by fire, though ambiguous, has always made me think of the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “After the first death, there is no other.”

Robert Frost, “Death of a Hired Man“—Again, this is not a Catholic or even a particularly Christian poem, but the charity expressed by the wife, “Mary” of course, is touching. When her husband, Warren, gives forth with the line for which the poem is best known (“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”), Mary responds (“I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”)

e. e. cummings, “my father moved through dooms of love“—As anyone who has been reading this blog knows by now, my father moved through dooms of love. (or as cummings has it, “because my father lived his soul, love is the whole and more than all”)

. . . or just about anything by Emily Dickinson.

So, what’s your answer, brothers and sisters? Is there a poem of faith, hope, or charity that still sings to you? Please comment below. If I get some answers, I’ll have more questions!

Because of “The Ballad of Barnaby”

At Adoration this afternoon, I thought for the first time in a long while of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Ballad of Barnaby.” Maybe that was because I often spend time at Adoration wondering just what I’m supposed to do down here anyway. Like “Barnaby,” our Adoration Chapel is set in “the crypt.”

This poem has haunted my adult life, and I think I know why. For 25 years, I was a performer in a world-famous stage magic troupe based at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, just two blocks from my new home, St. Mary Star of the Sea. And all the while something deep inside me was fixin’ to go Catholic.

With Katie and our daughters, Martha and Marian, I was a performer in Marco the Magi’s production of “Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company,” a “wonder-making spectacle performed in the style and tradition of the sunrise of the century.” Since the show started in 1977, the publicity materials have always referred to the sunrise of the twentieth century, although time does march on. The show was the brainchild of Cesareo Pelaez (a/k/a Marco the Magi), the archangel who first taught me about Catholicism. I don’t use the term archangel loosely. Cesareo’s middle name is Raphael.

This show was (and is) very successful—seven performances at the White House, major articles in Time and Smithsonian, and more awards from the international magic fraternity than you can shake a wand at. “Le Grand David” continues to this day, after 2,500 performances. But the inner story of “Le Grand David” is, to me, even more remarkable. A student in the 1960s of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Cesareo conceived our theatre enterprise as a communal adventure of the spirit, in which we would create something beautiful on stage that would simultaneously give praise to God—however each of us might view Him (or Her). Ours was a nonsectarian, ecumenical adventure, wherein the performance was a form of (borrowing a Christian term now) worship. Though we never, ever used that term.

And so “Barnaby.” I thought for many years of memorizing this poem and reciting it at one of the many holiday or birthday celebrations Cesareo was always organizing. The time for this seems to have passed now, as I left active involvement in the company in 2002.

But now I view “Barnaby” differently. As David B. Hart explains in a First Things review (October 2009) of “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright:

If a truly disruptive event occurs within human affairs—a new form of thought, for instance, coming from above or below or beyond the normal course of social causality—it will of necessity determine the shape not only of the future but of the past; for, if it has any large effect on history, it becomes the filter that discriminates between those prior developments that will be preserved and those prior developments that will come to nothing.

My conversion to Catholicism was such a “disruptive event” in my own affairs, one that causes me to look back on “The Ballad of Barnaby” as another reason YIM Catholic. Here is Auden’s poem in its entirety. It is entirely new to me today:

Listen, good people, and you shall hear / A story of old that will gladden your ear, / The Tale of Barnaby, who was, they say, / The finest tumbler of his day.

In every town great crowds he drew, / And all men marveled to see him do / The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, / The Vault of Metz, and the Vault of Lorraine.

His eyes were blue, his figure was trim,
/ He liked the girls and the girls liked him; / For years he lived a life of vice, / Drinking in taverns and throwing the dice.

It happened one day he was riding along / Between two cities, whistling a song, / When he saw what then was quite common to see, / Two ravens perched on a gallows-tree.

“Barnaby,” the first raven began,
/ “Will one day be as this hanging man.” / “Yes,” said the other, “and we know well / That when that day comes he will go to Hell.”

Then Barnaby’s conscience smote him sore;
/ He repented of all he had done heretofore: / “Woe is me! I will forsake / This wicked world and penance make.”

The evening air was grave and still
/ When he came to a monastery built on a hill: / As its bells the Angelus did begin, / He knocked at the door and they let him in.

The monks in that place were men of parts,
/ Learned in the sciences and the arts: / The Abbot could logically define / The place of all creatures in the Scheme Divine.

Brother Maurice then wrote down all that he said
/ In a flowing script that it might be read, / And Brother Alexander adorned the book / With pictures that gave it a beautiful look.

There were brothers there who could compose /
Latin Sequences in verse and prose, / And a brother from Picardy, too, who sung / The praise of Our Lady in the vulgar tongue.

Now Barnaby had never learned to read,
/ Nor Paternoster know nor Creed: / Watching them all at work and prayer, / Barnaby’s heart began to despair.

Down to the crypt at massing-time
/ He crept like a man intent on crime: / In a niche there above the altar stood / A statue of Our Lady carved in wood.

“Blessed Virgin,” he cried, “enthroned on high,
/ Ignorant as a beast am I: / Tumbling is all I have learnt to do; / Mother-of-God, let me tumble for You.”

Straightway he stripped off his jerkin,
/ And his tumbling acts he did begin: / So eager was he to do Her honour / That he vaulted higher than ever before.

The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne,
/ The vault of Metz and the Vault of Lorraine, / He did them all till he sank to the ground, / His body asweat and his head in a swound.

Unmarked by him, Our Lady now
/ Steps down from her niche and wipes his brow. / “Thank you, Barnaby,” She said and smiled; / “Well have you tumbled for me, my child.”

From then on at the Office-Hours
/ Barnaby went to pay her his devoirs. / One brother thought to himself: “Now where / Does Barnaby go at our times of prayer?”

And so next day when Barnaby slipped
/ Away he followed him down to the crypt. / When he saw how he honoured the Mother-of-God, / This brother thought: “This is very odd.

“It may be well: I believe it is,
/ But the Abbot, surely, should know of this.” / To the Abbot he went with reverent mien / And told him exactly what he had seen.

The Abbot said to him: “Say no word
/ To the others of what you have seen and heard. / I will come tomorrow and watch with you / Before I decide what I ought to do.”

Next day behind a pillar they hid,
/ And the Abbot marked all that Barnaby did. / Watching him leap and vault and tumble, / He thought, “This man is holy and humble.”

“Lady,” cried Barnaby, “I beg of Thee
/ To intercede with Thy Son for me!,” / Gave one more leap, then down he dropped, / And lay dead still, for his heart had stopped.

Then grinning demons, black as coal,
/ Swarmed out of Hell to seize his soul: / “In vain shall be his pious fuss, / For every tumbler belongs to us.”

But Our Lady and Her angels held them at bay,
/ With shining swords they drove them away, / And Barnaby’s soul they bore aloft, / Singing with voices sweet and soft.

Because Heaven is Closer than We Think

I nearly busted a gut helping Father Barnes lug St. Michael the Archangel back and forth from the sacristy so that the great heavenly warrior could preside from the top step of the high altar at mass this morning. I always thought angels were light, airy beings, but this guy’s enormous—10 stone if he’s a pound.

It got me thinking, on this Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, about just how real angels are for me. As I wrote in my very first post, I came to the Catholic Church understanding very little about it. I was drawn almost entirely by the saints, their example, and the thought, If it was right for them, how did I get to be so smart that I have a better idea? That and early grounding in the Christian faith at the side of my parents were the decisive influences in my formation.

But I didn’t understand the Eucharist. I didn’t “get” Mary. And I’m not sure I believed in angels. I’m still not sure I believe in angels, especially now that I know Michael’s a heavy son of a gun.

Yet Father Barnes’s homily this morning spoke to me, and like all of his homilies, it took off from the scripture readings, which today were about angels, of course. Our beloved pastor noted that this is a particularly beautiful time of the liturgical year as we move toward All Saints and All Souls, a period that reminds us that “heaven is closer to us than we think.” Think of the joyous feasts and memorials just ahead: Thérèse of Liseux, who promised she would drop flowers from heaven after her death; The Guardian Angels; St. Jerome, who translated the Bible, bringing the Word from heaven to earth; the mystics Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila; Our Lady of the Rosary . . .

If angels don’t exist, then something else pretty extraordinary is managing the ladder from heaven to earth. “We only see a portion of reality,” Father Barnes said, and this I do believe. Freud said the same thing, of course, when he wrote of the unconscious. I always wondered about Freud: just where are the id, the ego, and the superego located?

I don’t have to wonder where Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are located. They are in heaven, in which I do believe. And if they are only symbolic, as Freud’s Latin “organs” certainly are, then I’ll take the archangels any day—as far more positive, inspiring, and, yes, substantial. I learned that this morning.

For Julian DesRosiers

Why am I Catholic? As my litany of posts attests, I am Catholic because of saints, my father and mother, my pastor, books, movies, other Catholics . . . But until I attended a baptism on Sunday, I never asked why in a different way. I never asked what I am Catholic for.

Look at it this way: My blog has explained that I am a Catholic thanks to many blessed influences in my life—from Ammie to Cesareo, from Reverend Bassage to Father Barnes, from Thomas More to Thérèse of Lisieux, from Kristin Lavransdatter to “Joan of Arcadia.” But who will say the same of me someday? Who will say, I am Catholic thanks to Webster Bull?

Isak Dinesen asked a similar question at the end of her memoir Out of Africa: “I sing a song of Africa, but does Africa sing a song of me?” Maybe it’s an old person’s question.

Julian DesRosiers is the first child of young friends of mine, Adam and Jenn DesRosiers. Fellow parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, Jenn is a convert, Adam a revert; both are steady, kind, and devoted to our parish. Both are artists. Jenn is often a fellow communicant with me at daily mass. Adam has taken the pictures for our parish newsletter and many that appear on this site. I don’t hang out with them much (they’re nearly 30 years younger than I), but I love them, the way I love Ferde, the way I love Frank and Carrie. So when they invited me to Julian’s baptism, I said, of course, yes.

The ongoing shock of my conversion to Catholicism, like the ongoing astonishment of writing this blog and receiving so many readers’ comments, is realizing how inspiring one Catholic can be for others—in the case of this blog, me for you. I know how that sounds. It sounds strange to me too. Self-absorbed? Flattered by my own sense of self-importance? Yes, maybe, but— From the moment I began attending daily mass and sitting in the same pew every day, I saw by stages just how persuasive my presence could be there. By joyfully participating in the mass even when I could not receive the Eucharist, I saw that I was an example, a witness, an inspiration to other people.

This was in no way a recognition of my own power or importance. It came to me instead with a sense of grace, which humbled me. It was a gift I was being given, to use well.

But not until Julian’s baptism did I see the connection to the central question of this blog. Why—wherefore—am I Catholic? Not because of what but for what? In witnessing Julian’s baptism, I felt suddenly the responsibility of being not just a Catholic, but a good one, not just a man but a saint.

Maybe the central image in the gospel reading for Sunday helped drive this home:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

I’m afraid this gospel was aimed squarely at the priesthood during the abuse scandal of recent years. But what about me, a lay Catholic, professing the Catholic faith in front of Julian and all the other children who pass me in my daily life, including but not limited to the fourth-graders in my Wednesday afternoon CCD class? Will my behavior cause them to sin, or will it help them constantly to renew the cleansing grace of their baptism?

I am preparing for CCD class with a bit more intensity this week than last. I will stand in front of those sixteen nine-year-olds with a renewed sense of responsibility.

And to you, Julian DesRosiers, all of two weeks old, I have this to say: I will do my best to be a good example for you as you grow into the Catholic faith beside your fine parents. Your baptism was an invitation to me to renew my own faith, taking another baby step toward my destiny.

Because of Martyrs, Monks, Mores, and McNiffs

With the pope in the Czech Republic and with today’s memorial on the horizon, I got thinking yesterday about Good King Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, wondering why he matters. I love the Christmas carol and only yesterday understood the logic: GKW went out / on the feast of Stephen. Of course, first martyr! Never thought of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia as a martyr, or one who made a difference in my life.

This led to a broader thought about the two-thousand-year procession of Catholics who have made it possible for me to be a Catholic today, and they fell into four broad chronological categories:

Martyrs: In the beginning was Stephen, along with all those fair souls ripped up by lions and beheaded by Roman axes. When you think about how easily the whole Christian experiment could have folded its tents under Roman pressure, you begin to understand what a deep debt we owe these courageous souls.

Monks: About the time Christianity got legalized, and the purity and evangelical fervor began to die down, along came Benedict of Nursia and the rise of monasticism. Gotta go back and read Thomas Cahill on How the Irish Saved Civilization one of these days, but his message remains with me. Without all those scribes in lonely outposts dotting the frozen north, we not only wouldn’t have Catholicism, probably, we wouldn’t know Plato from Aristotle.

Mores: Things get established in the High and Late Middle Ages, the Church corrupts (though the Holy Spirit keeps throwing us Aquinases and Francises and Clares), and perhaps with some justification (though it’s never about reasons), Luther and the lads rebel. Catholicism could have folded again, but this was the age of Thomas More and Bishop Fisher and the heroes of the Counter-Reformation who again stood against the tide, giving lives and testimony so that Holy Mother Church would not be just another historic relic.

McNiffs: This is a tribute to my darling Katie‘s Irish ancestors. I want to do a longer post on them some day soon, even though I never even met her parents. But the point is, the Irish and the Italians, and in smaller earlier numbers the French, brought Catholicism to this country and sometimes took their lives in their hands to do so. And if you don’t believe me, move on over to Pat McNamara’s great blog of Catholic history to read the stories of literally hundreds of Catholics who brought the Church, its schools, its hospitals, its creed, and its culture to these shores.

Without any of these four M’s, I probably would not be a Catholic today.

Thanks to Father Barnes I

I was in turmoil all day, thinking about comments on recent posts. Two were from hostile on-line “advisors,” a third from someone dear to me. All three led me to question whether I have lost my direction; instead of offering the “good news” of Catholicism, have I strayed into haughty, uncharitable criticism of those who don’t agree with the Church? Has the monster taken control from Dr. Frankenstein?

Then I entered church for a 5:00 p.m. baptism, picked up the weekly bulletin, and concluded that Father Barnes’s bulletin message had been written expressly for me. This is not the first time I have been struck by a comment, message, or homily by Father Barnes and how it seemed to nail squarely an issue I was thinking or worrying about—bullseye—like the guy’s inside my head, or something! Though that’s a scary thought, I bless the day I entered St. Mary Star of the Sea Church and found that “FB” was the pastor. Without good priests we would have no church. Without Father Barnes I probably would not be a Catholic.

The comments that I fretted over were a mixed bag. The two from “Anonymous” contained plenty of nasty vituperation with a few pointed zingers thrown in, mostly about my arrogance and pomposity. Set aside the schoolyard mud-throwing, and together they suggested that I had been far too critical of both non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics who bring trivial objections against the Church.

The third commenter, my dear friend, called me to task for being too critical of a recent dinner companion, also in a post. There were no schoolyard epithets involved, but the basic message was the same: Who do you think you are?

You don’t want to hear about the soul-searching triggered by these comments. Let me just say that I didn’t feel I could dismiss all of the comments out of hand. Father Barnes’s message was like buried treasure discovered after a long, long search. The picture here shows our beloved Padre on the steps of the rectory on a Tuesday, “bulletin day,” as he writes one of his thoughtful messages. Today’s message spoke straight to my heart:

The other day, I was debating how to say something to somebody and I was reminded how important the words we speak (and write) are. They contain the power to encourage, but also the power to discourage. They can build up, but they can also destroy. . . . I think—though I’m no expert on this—as a culture, we’ve lost an appreciation for the seriousness of words.

Father B then went straight to the Catechism:

CCC #2477: Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and work likely to cause them unjust injury. . . .

CCC #2478: To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.

CCC #2479: Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Father Barnes concluded:

The words we speak and write matter. Our words have the capability of doing a lot of good, but they also can do a lot of harm. Let us treat our words seriously . . . so that they are always a means of loving our neighbor.

I can’t say it better. I’m still not sure which side I come down on: Were my criticisms in recent posts justified? Was my tone even-handed, or was it unfair? I can only look forward now anyway; I can only pray that from here on in, as much as possible, I adhere to the good Padre’s counsel.

He has never steered me wrong yet.

Because In the End It Isn’t About Reason

I had dinner last night with a cradle Catholic who holds a long-standing grudge against the Church. Years ago, she said, she heard a priest lecture his flock on dressing properly for Mass. “But the altar servers were wearing sneakers and jeans under their cassocks!” she exclaimed. “What a hypocrite!” While it was hard to follow her logic, I gather that she no longer attends Mass and that this is one of her reasons.

No doubt, every Catholic who has turned away from the Church has a “good reason” for doing so. I’ve heard many. They range from trivial (the dress code?) to tragic (the abuse scandal). But every reason, no matter how convincing its logic, no matter how convinced the reasoner, is only that, a reason. A reason is something we use to justify divisions between us humans. “I have left the church because . . . ” means “I (one human being) have decided not to associate with the Church (more human beings) and I am justified in doing so.” A reason makes us right.

There are a couple of problems with such reasoning. It leaves out God and it leaves out love.

Given the existence of God (which most of the formerly Catholic reasoners will grant) and given the historicity of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection (which a large subset will grant, as well), there is only one reasonable set of responses: awe, gratititude, praise, and the effort to model ourselves on the commandments Christ left us. From this point forward, there is only one reasonable thing to do: find the most authentic and viable way to Jesus Christ. This way logically can be traced only to the place and time of origin: His death and resurrection and his delegation of authority to the Apostles who followed him. This in turn leads to the Holy Catholic Church, not as an oligarchy of admittedly fallible human beings but as a mystical body established by Christ himself and the only possible earthly link to Our Savior.

This search, if we are sincere about it, if our love is true, will lead us through the history of the early Church and its Fathers, and the likes of St. Augustine who, after four centuries of martyrdom and clarification, stood at the end of the Roman era and declared the unique and eternal value of this institution. We must then overlook, with humility, with gratitude, and even sometimes with humor, centuries upon centuries of human fallibility and human renewal through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, until we come down to the Church as it exists in our time—headed by one of the most holy, inspiring, and just plain brilliant popes in history.

If our love for God and His Son is still intact after this trial by fire, and if we have the open-mindedness to listen to what our pope, my pope, Benedict XVI, has to say about all this, we can stand on our two feet, look anyone in the eye, and say, Yes, I embrace and wholeheartedly support the Catholic Church because . . . .

As Thomas More had it, in that heart-breaking scene in “A Man for All Seasons,” wherein Paul Scofield explains to Susannah York why he will not take the oath and thereby save himself, “In the end, it is not about reason. In the end, it is about love.”

And so for every reasonable person who has chosen to turn away, there are others who choose to remain, looking the same facts in the face and saying, “It is not about reason, it is about love.”

I am one of those who chooses to remain. This is another “reason” why I am Catholic.

(Again, my thanks to my fellow parishionier Adam Desrosiers, a fine artist, for his photograph of our church. I will be proud to be present at 5 p.m. today, when the first child of Adam and his wife, Jenn, is baptized at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts.)


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