To Be Frank, Part 5, “The Imitation of Christ”

Posted by Frank
I mentioned in the last post in this series that I was jumping from the frying pan and into the fire when I set aside Blaise Pascal’s Pensées and picked up The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Keep in mind that my intended mission in all this reading was to come up with ammunition proving how misguided and error-filled Catholicism is.

As Webster has written in an earlier post, there are many pathways to God. He cited this exchange between our Pope, Benedict XVI, and journalist Peter Seewald:

Seewald: How many ways are there to God?
Cardinal Ratzinger: As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. . . .


The funny thing about that quote is that one of the main things I intended to try to prove was that the personal relationship with God was missing-in-action in the Catholic Church. So when I picked The Imitation of Christ off the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf, I was completely unprepared for the depth and breadth of personal relationship with Christ that is possible from the Catholic perspective.

Let’s just take a look at the outline of the book, in four parts as follows:

Book One: Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul
Book Two: The Interior Life
Book Three: Internal Consolation
Book Four: An Invitation to Holy Communion

I haven’t even read a word yet, but already I know that there is going to be much rich food here. Book One for example has 25 chapters, most of which are the length of a short essay. Here are the first few titles: Imitating Christ and Disposing All Vanities on Earth, Having a Humble Opinion of Self (Marines are known for humility, not!), The Doctrine of Truth, Prudence in Action, Reading the Holy Scripture, Unbridled Affections, Avoiding False Hope and Pride, Shunning Over-Familiarity, and so on.

The book begins with the following sentence comprised mostly of a verse from John (8:12),

“He who follows Me walks not in darkness” says the Lord.

Uh-oh, I’m about to be schooled in scripture by a Catholic again!

Thomas continues as follows:

By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

I’m already thinking that this makes all kinds of sense. Who better a model to study than Jesus? This guy is on to something.

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

There are plenty of times where “the words of Christ” are downright painful to hear, especially when you start trying to put them in practice. With that idea in mind, Thomas hits me with paragraph #3:

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

I love the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, so “vanity of vanities” strikes a chord with me immediately. Then Thomas throws paragraph #4 at me,

This is the greatest wisdom — to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.

OK. After that paragraph, I’m on the ropes and stumbling around like some rookie fighter who has wandered into the ring with the mid-1960s Muhammed Ali. Sheesh! And this fight is only going for one round because paragraph 5 settles it with a knock out punch:

Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.”(Ecclesiastes 1:8) Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.

It’s time to get back to work on these stairs, if I can think straight after this bout!

Next time: The stairs are done, but I am not.

To Be Frank, Part 4, “From Pascal To The Mother of All Projects”

I left off last time with my friend Blaise Pascal throwing me something like a complete game shut-out and a no-hitter as well. Frankly, this guy was starting to get irritating. His immense knowledge of Scripture was the capper. The fact that he wasn’t even breaking a sweat was especially galling.

That’s because I thought I was really knowledgeable about the Bible. I had never read it cover-to-cover, but so what? Since I was old enough to remember, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, week-long Summer Bible Camp, and of course, actually reading it occasionally made me the “duty expert” on Scripture, compared to my wife anyway. The “cradle Catholic,” she was almost completely ignorant of the Bible.

When we got married, she had no idea what books were in the Bible (“I thought the Bible was the book”—sheesh!). The concepts of Old Testament and New Testament were not completely foreign to her, but hand her a Bible and it might as well have been a road map of Middle Earth written in runes. A map like that wouldn’t help her find her way from the Inland Empire to the San Fernando Valley. Everyone knows that Catholics are clueless about the Bible. Everyone I knew, that is.

And yet, Blaise Pascal knew the Bible, seemingly backwards and forwards. He was getting to be intolerable. Evidently he didn’t get the memo that I, the non-Catholic, was the “duty expert” on Scripture in my household. So I did the only thing I could do. I put his lousy unfinished book down and went to work on the staircase.

Have you ever pulled a stunt like that? I had, many times. “How dare you insult my superiority?!” That was my routine response, before I was Catholic anyway (and even today, I must still be vigilant). But I wasn’t a Catholic yet, so I just went to work out my frustrations on the stairs.

Ah, the stairs. My wife is laughing now! Took me a year to finish them. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about my marriage. It took one hour to remove the old carpet and about 300 days to figure out the next steps and generally hope I hadn’t made an irrevocable, not to mention expensive, error. Pray!

Here is the story in a nutshell: We bought an older home with wall-to-wall carpet. Having three young children who are outdoorsy types and one dog, this situation was not pretty—for the carpet, that is, which was light gray. Knowing that it rains a lot here in my new hometown, my wife and I knew that the carpet was not going to cut the mustard. Solution? Remove and replace with wood.

I learned a lot. One of the first things I learned was that rookies don’t build stairs. Too late! I embarked on a crash course in carpentry. I had to order a few books on stairs, and as I worked, I gained a healthy, new found admiration for the skills of a good carpenter.

Our Lord and Savior is a carpenter too, in addition to being the Word made Flesh and Maker of All Things Seen And Unseen. He was born into a family business run by St. Joseph. And Joseph didn’t dally in carpentry either. It was his vocation, it put food on the Holy Family’s table. As I worked, I thought if this was my career, I’d probably starve.

During lunch breaks and such, I returned to the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books for inspiration and came upon the next jewel in this collection: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I thought to myself, Now that is a bold title! What an understatement.

Running away from Blaise Pascal, I was leaving the frying pan and heading straight for the fire. Reading the introductory note to The Imitation, I learned the following:

With the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this. And yet, in one sense, it is hardly an original work at all. Its structure it owes largely to the writings of the medieval mystics, and its ideas and phrases are a mosaic from the Bible and the Fathers of the Early Church. But these elements are interwoven with such delicate skill and a religious feeling at once so ardent and so sound, that it promises to remain what it has been for five hundred years, the supreme call and guide to spiritual aspiration.

Let me get this straight. This is the second most popular book in the world and I had never even heard of it? What planet had I been on! All of this time, I had thought that only the stairs needed renovating, when in fact I was the one in need of time in the dry-dock.

Next time: The Imitation of Christ (and my almost finished staircase).

To Be Frank, Part 3, “What the Blazes, Blaise?!”

I’m a baseball fan. I love the game! I never really played it that well as a kid, but my oldest son is pretty good. He didn’t play ball on an official team until he was seven years old, but I started pitching Wiffle Balls to him when he was three or four. [Read more...]

Because the Holy Spirit is On the Line

Posted by Webster
I have a theory that can be stated simply: The Holy Spirit is on FaceBook. I don’t mean to promote a single form of the new electronic media by proposing this. I could as easily prove that the Holy Spirit uses Twitter. I mean, think about it. What sound does a dove make? Tweet, tweet.

I offer this for weekend discussion and propose one test case for consideration. Exhibit A: Frank Weathers.

Several weeks ago, as dedicated readers of this space know, I was struggling with the direction of YIMCatholic. Started as a sort of love letter to Katie and the girls—you are the most important people in the world to me, these are the most important ideas, let me share—YIMCatholic took on a life of its own, mysteriously attracting the attention of such as Fr. Jim Martin at America magazine and Elizabeth Scalia over at The Anchoress. Them and others, all in a few weeks.

It was at that point that the ego went rampant and your humble servant began blogging his fanny off, like Cedric the Entertainer working out to a Richard Simmons video. It didn’t do much for my fanny, but it sure as heck annoyed my bride.

I began to despair, and with a twist thrown in from a personal matter that has since clarified itself, I thought, Junk it. You’ve lost the original purity of mission. You’re making a fool of yourself. Switch off that darn video and have a pizza. Pepperoni, extra cheese.

It was about this time that Frank Weathers (remember Exhibit A?) started barraging me with e-mails. Something about a retired Marine from, where was it, Kentucky? Tennessee? Probably the hills, where he brewed moonshine, I thought. Since I don’t give anyone the right to retire until they’re older than me, I had “Frank W” pegged as a geezer with a few teeth left in his head after a life of bar fights, staggering around with a jug in his hand and Semper Fi on his chapped and dirty lips.

But his e-mails were too smart for that. He began providing me on-line resources for subjects on which I was writing or might write, stuff I never would have found myself, about Merton, Erasmus, Dickens’s Life of Our Lord. He almost seemed to anticipate my thoughts, moving stealthily like a Navy Seal in the darkness just ahead of YIMCatholic. It came to a place where I could not ignore the old geezer a minute longer. Then I found out he was no geezer: Twelve years younger than me, happily married, father of three handsome kids, active in a second career that allows him to research questions posed in this space, a persuasive and thoughtful writer, and—most important to the mission here—vitally, passionately, happily Catholic.

I made Frank a proposal. How about writing up your own conversion experiences in a short (500-to-750-word) essay? If it’s any good, I’ll put it up and let the dogs howl. An hour later, Frank’s 900-word draft was in my in-box, and by the following morning, before I had a chance to react to this barrage, he had sent me “chapter 2.” Whaaaat? I screamed to myself. Then I read what Frank had written and thought I heard a bird chirping. Could Frank be the answer to a prayer I hadn’t even verbalized? An answer to the woes faced by every blogger, I’ll bet: loneliness and fatigue. Loneliness, because every day you have to strap it on and write 1,000 words that no one might even read. Fatigue, because, do the math, that’s 365,000 words a year.

Oh, yeah, and this: There’s no money in it. (See annoyed bride)

I have an impulsive child in me, who makes snap decisions and then sometimes regrets them. But so far I have had no reason to doubt the decision that came next: By the time Frank had written and submitted chapter 3 (before chapter 1 was even on line), I realized that this stuff, good stuff too, was pouring out of him. I realized that, as a Catholic convert from the same RCIA graduation class of 2008, Frank seemed to have a lot in common with me. On the flip side, as a man raised in the South and a man with a distinguished military career under his belt (I have none), he might have significantly different points of view on non-essential points. (The maxim “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity” may not come from St. Augustine, as some say, but it works for me.)

So I said, “Permission to come aboard!” And here we are. Frank has made it clear that I am the front-seater, that he’s content to sit behind as RIO, covering my six. (I’m starting to get some of this military terminology.) I’ve made it clear that if I go down in the line of duty, or while working out to Richard Simmons, he has the conn. Last night, Frank talked me on-line through the set-up of a FaceBook fan page. He’s twelve years younger, remember, and he gets this stuff better; I’m convinced it’s generational, that he was born into a world of color television and never saw “Leave it to Beaver” in black-and-white.

The Holy Spirit on FaceBook? Yes, I’m sure of it. And everywhere else on line. Messages coming all day long, many of them not from the HS. Which is the problem, of course. But it’s all about keeping our own channels open, isn’t it? Like recognizing the sound of a bird chirping when you hear it, and opening the window so you can hear it sing.

To Be Frank, Part 2, “A Change of Course Thanks to Blaise Pascal”

Posted by Frank
I left off last time with the prospect of broadening my mind with the great works of Western thought in the Harvard Classic Five-Foot Shelf of Books (HCFFSB). I was ready to wade into the deep valleys and high pinnacles of the works that molded Western civilization as we know it today. But where to start?
I looked over the choices by scanning the titles embossed in gold lettering on the spines of the volumes. I wasn’t in the mood for poetry so Volume 4, Complete Poems in English, Milton, was out. So was Volume 6, Poems and Songs, Burns (but I would be back for that one). The Aeneid? I had read that already when I was a young warrior. Ditto for Emerson. I was all about Self-Reliance anyway—yawn. Two Years Before the Mast? Sorry—I’ve been at sea for a year with the Royal Navy, fella, via Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s time to hit port! [Read more...]

To Be Frank, Part 1, “From the US Marines to the Harvard Classics”

This blog has put me in touch with Catholics worldwide, many of them converts. One of these, a retired U.S. Marine named Frank, has become a regular correspondent of mine. Recently, I asked him to consider writing his own conversion story. He agreed to do so. Until further notice, I will post one installment each weekend. The series will be indexed under the topic 2BFrank.

Pinning on the Rocker..

Pinning on the Rocker..

On a spring day in 2005 in Southern California, I convinced my wife to move back to my hometown in Tennessee.  The arguments were: better schools, cleaner air, slower living, proximity to grandparents and relatives. It was a monumental sales job because my spouse, though born in Quezon City in the Philippines, is a California girl at heart.  Her family had arrived in Los Angeles after the Marcos regime’s imposition of martial law. The government shut down the radio station where her mom was a broadcaster, and the entire family miraculously obtained visas (mom, dad, and three children) and moved to Hollywood where my future spouse entered the sixth grade. [Read more...]


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