Because Napoleon Died a Catholic Death

A few weeks back, my family and I hit the used book sale that is held annually to benefit our local public library. Going to this sale has been an annual event for us, ever since we moved to Tennessee six years ago. It is at that sale where I first picked up the collection of Harvard Classics, where I met Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis.

Now that I’m a Catholic, I go to this sale on the lookout for books about the Faith, and works written by great Catholic authors. 

I hit the jackpot this year, with a treasure trove of titles. Four Faultless Felons by G.K. Chesterton, for example. A paperback from 1956 called The Papal Encyclicals, with writings from St. Peter all the way up to Pope Pius XII. More Chesterton with Father Brown of the Church of Rome, edited by John Peterson. I picked up 17 titles in all, including The Waters of Siloe by Thomas Merton and The Peasant of Garonne by Jacques Maritain.

And the selection I am sharing with you today is from Hilaire Belloc’s biography of a famous French general and Emperor you may have heard of named Napoleon Bonaparte. Published in 1932, and weighing in at 379 pages, in a large hardback sporting “16 Illustrations and 22 Maps,” I’m looking forward to getting to know Napoleon better, through Hilaire Belloc’s pen.

A cursory glance of the volume landed me near the end of the book where the death of the exiled leader is imminent. Much as he did in The Great Heresies, Belloc doesn’t bother with footnotes here. But from what he writes about how Napoleon died, I hope to meet him in heaven.

Here is how Belloc tells the tale,

The Death of Napoleon

In exile on St. Helena

It was nightfall on Sunday, April 29, 1821. Napoleon lay dying. The little iron camp-bed with the silver eagles on its four corners and its green curtains was placed in the middle of the low petty room, its head to the light between two windows, its foot towards the simple fireplace, on the mantlepiece of which, in front of a large square looking-glass, stood the bust of his little son.

Wretched as the room was, it was the best in the shanty of a house—a place that was soon to be turned into common stables and was most suitable perhaps for that. It had been worse, when first the Emperor and the few who followed him came into that exile. They had found shreds of the wall-paper turned moldy and rotten with moisture and the ragged carpet on the floor gnawed into holes by rats. So much had been set right; muslin had been stretched over the walls and fluted round, the ceiling white-washed, and the place reasonably clean.

Napoleon’s Lodgings

It stood not far from the summit of a sort of very wide shallow cup sloping down easterly towards the sea from on of the ridges of that volcanic island (St. Helena in the South Atlantic), the floors of the long low place being somewhat less than 2000 feet above the sea, the noise of which could be heard coming up the funnel from the mouth of the depression below. And up that broad cup of the valley, and from the ocean below too, frequently blew the south-east gales—which the failing Emperor dreaded, finding that they suited him ill.

To the right end of the bed as he lay in such extremity he looked through an open door at the chapel which had been set up as best might be in the next room of the suite, the dining room. He gazed through to the wooden altar which the Chinese workmen (serfs of the East India Company) had set up; and his eyes could rest there on one of the last monuments of his name; the four golden letters “N” embroidered on either corner of the green velvet cloth which covered the two steps.

Through this door that morning he had heard the Sunday Mass which Bertrand’s young son had served. There also was the Tabernacle, rough, amateur, cardboard covered, but ornamented as best might be with gilt paper and the white of it gleaming against the red satin behind, while above stood a great Crucifix in ebony, too large it seemed for the altarpiece. Its great silver figure of Christ dominated the scene. He had given orders that when his last agony should be upon him, the Blessed Sacrament should be exposed and the Prayers of the Dead recited; also, said he, he desired to fulfill all the duties of the Catholic Faith.

Now as he had said these words, Antommarchi—the surgeon attendant upon him, who was an atheist in the spirit of his time,as also from the boast of science that he had, could not restrain a smile; whereat Napoleon, with some remnant of strength, flamed up at him and cried, “Be off! Stupidity fatigues me, but I can forgive shallow wits or even bad manners. I cannot forgive dullness of heart.”

It being not long after dark, Montholon had already taken up his watch at nine o’clock, which he changes alternately with the valet Marchand, and it ran till two o’clock in the morning. But on that day he had occasion to leave the Emperor alone, for this reason, that the priest Vignali was to attend. For Napoleon had said long before, when first he discovered what awaited him in his exile, “I must have a priest about me: I would not die like a dog.”

The Emperor had not feared death. He had seen it coming for now long past, ever since the beginning of the year. For when, on New Year’s Day, Marchand had pulled the curtains in the morning, Napoleon—who loved a joking converse with a familiar, and was devoted to those about him—had said, “Well, and what present have you for me this New Years?”

Marchand had answered, “Sire, the hope of seeing Your Majesty soon set to rights and leaving this air which does you only ill.”

But to such words Napoleon, no longer smiling, had gravely replied, “It will not last long, my son. My end is on me; I cannot carry on much more.”

Said Marchand, “As I see things it is not so.”

And then Napoleon had ended all this by the few words, “It shall be as God wills.”

As his illness had increased upon him he had known more and more that certainly it was death.

There came a time when he could no longer walk or ride out of doors, and when he attempted to do so turned faint. In March his blood had chilled and they needed to put warm clothes about his feet, and by the middle of the month he said to a doctor who begged him to take remedies prescribed, “Well, sir! I am at your orders! But do you not see that death will be to me a gift from Heaven? I do not dread it. I will do nothing to hasten it, but I would try no sortilege to make my life the longer.” And at another time he said, “Death has now been for some weeks beside me upon my pillow,” meaning that he had become familiar with that Visitor.

He had told them also, with more instinctive knowledge than their science possessed, that he was dying of what his father had died of; and so he was—with a cancer in the stomach which was certain soon to make an end; so that he could also say, when his English doctor asked him how he felt upon a certain day, “I shall soon give back to the earth the remnant of that life which it is of such import to the Kings to seize.”

He had asked, while still he could attend to reading, that they should read him Homer for a while; and that same day, Sunday the 29th, he had dictated, as he had dictated upon the day before, what he termed “A Reverie”—would that we possessed it! But now, when the night had come, greater things were at hand. The priest was with him alone.

Napoloeon Bonaparte confessed, and was absolved; his peace with the Faith was made; the Last Sacraments were administered—save for this, that he might not receive the Viaticum since he could retain no food. They therefore dared not give him the Eucharist. But he was at peace, while yet his reason remained to him.

It remained to him still for a brief four days. Upon the next day, the last of April, the Monday, his thoughts being still clear but his weakness very great and the sickness upon him very grievous, he kept his eyes still fixed upon the bust of his little son showing there against the glass at the foot of the bed upon the mantel. His sleep had left him, but he lingered on through May 2 and until the 3rd. Upon the 3rd, the last flicker of his great will being, as he thought, still at his service, he attempted to rise for a moment, but fell back. They gave him wine, and as he tasted it he murmured, “How good is wine!”

With that night of the 3rd, however, all around know that the end was upon him, and all watched. With the morning, before noon, his delirium began, in the frenzy of which at one moment he attempted to seize on Montholon at his side; and in that fever he muttered continually words the whispered confusion of which suggested now this, now that. It is said that the last of them which any mortal could distinguish were, “Army…army…” and “Head of the Army….” But there can be no certain record of such things.

All that day long, all the afternoon, right on through the night till four in the morning of the Saturday, the 5th, that final unconscious communion with the last flicker of this life continued. Drowning the slight murmurs of it, came violent rain for hours against the window panes at either side of the beds head, and mixed with that noise the saying of the Prayers before the Altar. Out of the sea a great wind arose and blew furiously up the valley, shaking the frail and miserable tenement with its gusts and rattling the casements and driving more furiously still the waters of the tempest against the glass.

But as the afternoon grew louder in the heavens without, the Emperor at last lay still, and even the faint whisperings from his lips were no longer heard; but they still moved imperceptibly in breathing. The household were assembled. It was near six in the evening. At nine minutes to the hour, the sunset gun was heard far off down the wind; and the rush of the tropical twilight fell under the hurrying clouds and that now lessening gale all those silent about him saw the change: the mouth half fell, the eyes opened; but they saw nothing of this world any more: Napoleon was dead.

They covered him with the cloak he had worn at Marengo, a Crucifix upon it, and by his side laid his sword.

You better believe that if I can say a prayer for the soul of Dracula, then I can certainly say one for Napoleon’s soul as well. And in the spirit of Lenten almsgiving, I’ll throw another one in for Hilaire Belloc’s soul for good measure too.

Update: Napoleon answers the question “Who is Jesus Christ?”

Because There Is Good News

You have heard it said, “it is always darkest before the dawn,” and you have nodded your head in agreement. At least those of you who have ever camped out know this to be true, right?

These have been dark days for our Church. Scandals, parishes and schools closing, doom and gloom, etc. But it is not always so, and no single one of us can see the “big picture.”

Jacques Maritain, writing in 1966 said,

Everything depends on the unforseeable ways of God and his secret graces, together with human liberty, comprised as it is in his eternal plan. What is certain is that the Church will emerge from this crises wonderfully purified; error will not have got the better of her.

So let me share a little good news from the local newspaper in my town. It is about the director of the RCIA program in my parish. Her name is Tanya Belanger and here is her story,

“I grew up knowing a few things: I knew that the Catholic Church was the world’s biggest cult, I knew that the Pope was the anti-Christ, and that Catholic people were non-Christian,” says Tanya Belanger.

Belanger now heads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults faith formation program at All Saints Catholic Church in West Knoxville.

The program is designed to teach adults interested in Catholicism about the church through weekly Monday night meetings hosted in part by laypeople who want to share their faith. The current program has about 55 people attending classes, Belanger says, explaining one of the common motivators for attendance is having a family member who’s Catholic.

RCIA programs have been a part of the Catholic Church since its formation but, as Belanger explains, it “fell out of favor” for many years until the Second Vatican Counsel brought it back to the Church around 1980.

And it’s through the program that Belanger not only became a part of the Catholic Church, but ultimately ended up in charge of it.

You’ll want to read the rest here.

For the Psalms and Spring, Family and Sports

It is getting ready to be a very busy time for me and my family. That’s because Spring is just around the corner, and around my house this means our children’s sports teams will begin hitting the ground running.

Not everyone gets involved in such things as sports for their kids. Not every child enjoys organized soccer, or baseball, or softball, volley ball, basketball, horse riding, or any of the other myriad possibilities to turn your child’s attention to.

So why do we even bother in our household? Joy in living is the only real reason that I can think of. That and the realization that though our children’s gifts and abilities are out of our hands, they should still be developed. Besides, everything we spend time doing matters.

It is a tight-rope and certainly there is a fine line between the healthy reasons for involving our children in sports, and the unhealthy turning of sports into an idol. On the positive side, for example, our oldest son has played organized baseball for 8 years, since he was 7 years old. As it turns out, he is pretty good at this game. Honestly, he is ten times better at it than I ever was.

How did this happen? I really have no idea. It is nothing that I expected. And let me assure you, my wife never saw this coming either. But God saw it coming, and of that fact I have no doubt. He has decided that, through our children, He will take my wife and I places that we never intended to go on our own.

And there is the riddle of our son’s gift, for example. Though endowed with excellent hand-eye coordination, and having an arm that can accurately throw thunderbolts, the most important characteristic of all isn’t even a physical one. It is that my son simply loves this game. And this love for it drives him to do things that only love can make him do.

Like get up early for practice, and study hard to keep up his grades. And endure practices that look like something that the Marine Corps would endorse. Sure, it wasn’t like that when he was in little league. That was all fun, and that is also where the seeds of this love were planted. But now that he has made the high school team, the love for the game has been tested by the fires of hard work and sweat. There is a spiritual message in all of this somewhere, I am sure.

As an aside, one of the great things about being Catholic is that we have never missed a Mass because of baseball, or any other sports games of my children either. Blessed to live in a diocese with more than one parish, Our Lord has also seen fit to provide more than one Mass said at each parish during the weekend across our area. The only excuse for missing a Mass is sloth, and thankfully, that hasn’t ever occurred.

One day, my son’s baseball career will come to an end, as all good things generally do. And on that day, my career as a baseball dad will end too. Life will go on. But until that day comes, I’ll keep supporting my children in these endeavors.

Because in the end, unless you measure things crudely in only utilitarian and materialistic terms, the benefits of participation in sports (or other extracurricular activities) far outweigh the negatives. Especially when you acknowledge that these abilities and talents being developed are gifts from God, and not of our own making.

I teach my children, and pray that they will remember, gratitude for these truths sung by the Psalmist,

I praise you, so wonderfully you made me;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you knew;
my bones were not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned as in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes foresaw my actions;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.
How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!
Were I to count, they would outnumber the sands;
to finish, I would need eternity.

And also this Song of Ascents of David, which is well suited to keep the soul of an athlete grounded in humility,

Psalm 131

LORD, my heart is not proud;
nor are my eyes haughty.
I do not busy myself with great matters,
with things too sublime for me.
Rather, I have stilled my soul,
hushed it like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.

Israel, hope in the LORD,
now and forever.

Amen.

Because, Believe It Or Not, It’s Easy

How many high school seniors do you know who have a blog? To narrow that list down a bit, how many of them have one dedicated to blogging about the Catholic faith? Well allow me to introduce you to a young man who does just that.

He’s young, smart, edgy, and reverently irreverent. In other words, he’s the kind of Catholic I hope my kids meet up with and hang out with. 

Full Disclosure: I’ve never met Marc personally. But he caught my eye first with a post he wrote on Catholics in the military, and another that he posted which linked to my post on Vlad the Impaler.

If photographs of nuns smoking cigarettes offend you (some people do smoke, you know, and some of these people become nuns and priests too) don’t bother e-mailing me. Just remember this about my friend Marc: He is young, and though inexperienced in many ways, he is inflamed with a love for Christ and His Church, and his writing shows this clearly.

Thirty years ago, when I was Marc’s age, I was just as fired up about being a Marine. I think we share a personality trait, or two. We go all the way, or not at all. There is no “half way.” Why is Marc Catholic? Because, as “the Kid” writes below, it’s easy.

Guest post by Marc Barnes,

I suppose that whenever any honest Catholic is asked this question – be it by the must-save-you-from-hell-for-which-you-are-destined-by-your-goddess-worship Baptist or the mind-boggled agnostic who cannot begin to comprehend our happy willingness to make a few babies -G.K. Chesterton’s answer seems the most appropriate response; that “the difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

I want to laugh and yell to the inquisitors that the real question, and indeed the only question worth asking, is why on earth are you not Catholic? An aversion to joy? Or perhaps just an aversion to fish on Fridays? A fear of true community? Or perhaps a deep and abiding fear of nuns? (I have a secret belief that those who do not like Catholicism simply have no sense of humor. However, that’s another story.)

But if I had to undertake the monstrous task of sorting through the various delights and pleasures of Catholicism – which I do, in case you were wondering – to search for one most meaningful to me – to decide between incense, the Communion of Saints, old ladies praying rosaries, our Mother Mary, and all the rest – there is one guilty happiness, one indulgent secret of Catholicism that makes it the Right Religion For Me. Catholicism is easy.

Having made that reckless statement, I would kindly ask those who fast every other day of their novena-filled lives while practicing self-flagellation to put down their pitchforks, stop google mapping my house, have some bread and water, and follow me for a few more paragraphs.

Catholicism is the only religion that is equally accessible to both saints and sinners, and is just as true and available to the murderer in the last pew as it is to the priest facing him. Though I dislike explaining positives through negatives, the same simply cannot be said for popular versions of Evangelical Christianity, for example, where spiritual experience requires emotional or transcendent experience to validate it.

I have many Protestant friends who I’ve honestly questioned, “how do you know you are forgiven for your sins?” The answers are many and varied, but all incredibly deep: “I let God into my heart and He speaks his word of forgiveness there, telling me I’m forgiven” or “I admit my sins and I feel God’s forgiveness wash over me.” There is nothing at all wrong with these holy answers except this: they are too holy.

But answers like these make forgiveness only accessible to saints, to people with hearts finely-tuned to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, to those who hear God in their ears telling them they are forgiven, and thus they make it unavailable to the hungover truck driver or that murderer in the back pew, God bless him. Better is the follower of religion that when asked, “are you forgiven?’ can answer “yes, I went to Reconciliation on Tuesday before the 9 a.m Mass,” for that is an answer that even the worst of us can give.

It gets even holier when I’ve asked them if they have God in their lives. “Yes, he speaks to me through His word, and is constantly inside of me.” or “Yes, ever since I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior he has been holding my hand.” What beautiful answers! Indeed, the holiest saints in heaven are nodding their heads in sage agreement.

But what sadness and tragedy! The hungover trucker is shaking his head and saying “what the hell are you talking about?” Answers such as these are brilliant gems of trust, but the truth of the matter is – when it comes to feeling God’s presence – we aren’t all diamonds in the rough. Most of us appear to be just “the rough,” in fact.

The hand-holding Jesus does not always remain foremost in the mind of those rocked by sorrow or sin, and thus the responses made by our Protestant brothers and sisters are reserved for the peaceful, contemplative saints among us, and not the beserker in the back pew, may he live forever. Better is the religion that when asked, “Is God inside you?” can answer, “Yes, and I ate Him this morning at the 9 o’clock Mass too.” for that is an answer that the most distracted and unsaintly of practicing Catholics can give.

This trend continues throughout every aspect of the faith. “How do you know you’ve received the Holy Spirit?”, “How do you know you are saved?”, “How do you know God loves you?” No matter the question, Catholicism’s answer is always universal, practical and equally applicable to every one of it’s members, while other believers answers are emotional, personal, and apply to seemingly only the holiest of saints among them, whom they consider themselves to be. The irony that Catholics should happily admit is that the problem with every other form of Christianity is not that they have dumbed down religion (though they often do in many aspects), but that they have made it extremely complicated and – dare I say, dare I? Oh, alright then – elitist.

If, as Chesterton says, “religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; [and] it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary,” then it is certainly a point for Catholics that we follow this maxim, and certainly a point against our holy brothers and sisters for whom a man must feel extraordinary to even begin to take part in the faith.

That’s why Catholics are so happy and ridiculous. Because Christ made this whole religion thing easy. He established an infallible Church so that we would not have to seek personal revelation for our every decision, he established the power to forgive sins here on earth so we would not just have emotional consolation after every lustful thought. He established the Eucharist so He would be with us always, not only in Spirit, but physically there for the least of us to cradle in our unworthy hands.

I am Catholic because Catholicism is easy. But the really beautiful thing in this whole matter is this. Just because Catholicism works for the sinner does not mean it is banal, bland, or boring for the saint. The Eucharist, when viewed with proper consideration and taken with proper praise has us weeping, fainting, and caught up in the most intimate, sensual glories of heaven. It is our very life-breath, the greatest most addicting drug ever given to man, that can elevate us beyond the reach of earthly delight.

And all of us, every last one of us, has a duty to become a saint, has a duty to try for this holiness, and for the holiness that Christians of other faith traditions claim as their staple diet. But the reason I am Catholic and the reason I would die for my Church, is that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is available to us whether or not we can reach this holiness. He has made it easy, so that the brigand in the back pew might slowly and surely become the saint in the front.

About the author,

Marc is close to failing high school or close to passing, depending on your outlook on life. He plans to go to Franciscan University in Steubenville and become a famous rapper and/or Catholic writer and/or fast-food employee. He loves short walks on the beach. His favorite thing to do of all time is to create clubs, groups and organizations that only ever really have one meeting that never gets followed up on. He currently maintains a blog known as BadCatholic, that focuses on how bad we are at practicing our great religion. And how that’s O.K. He has 5 brothers and sisters, an incredibly attractive girlfriend and no pets. He wishes he were cool enough to be invited into a gang.

For Purgatory, Thank Heavens

—Feast of All Souls

When I was straddling the fence on whether or not I should become a Catholic, I never had a problem with Purgatory. It just makes the most sense to me, not that my personal opinion about this doctrine means anything.

I’ll admit that I thought I would have a big problem with it at first. Because, you see, it isn’t mentioned specifically in the Bible (along with many other details). But where did all the people who died go, for example from the Old Testament times? Assuming that all the people who had died before the Incarnation were just, ahem—out of luck, is ridiculous to me. And that was before I knew the doctrine of purgatory very well.

And praying for the dead? Well, once the books of the Bible tossed out by the reformers were put back where they belong, that was no longer an issue either. Like this from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 7:36-37,

And stretch out thy hand to the poor, that thy expiation and thy blessing may be perfected. A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead.

I just ran a quick search over at the handy-dandy YIMCatholic Bookshelf of the word “purgatory” and came back with references to 175 different books. You’ll find everything from St. Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory(only 67 pages, so give it a look) to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society.

Below are some thoughts I want to share with you from an American named John L. Stoddard. Back in 1922, Stoddard wrote Rebuilding A Lost Faith, By An American Agnostic. It’s 246 pages of top-notch conversion story.  But I’m only going to share Stoddard’s thoughts on Purgatory with you because in many ways, they mirror my own path to understanding this doctrine. Like Stoddard, the crux of the matter for me hinges on authority. Either you believe that, heads, the Church has the authority to teach this doctrine or, tails (like Martin Luther), you don’t. Guess which side of this coin I side with?

I’ll let Stoddard take it from here,

From Chapter XV, Purgatory and Indulgences

THE difficulty in regard to Papal Infallibility (See chapter XIV) having been overcome, I turned to consider the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the Sacrament of Penance. My feelings in respect to this will best be shown by the following extract from a letter which I wrote about this time to a Catholic friend.

“My Dear Francis:

“I find no special difficulty in the Catholic dogma of Purgatory. On the contrary, the idea of a state of purification, appointed for those souls who, though redeemed by Christ, are nevertheless still unprepared to pass at once into God’s presence, appears to me logical and even comforting. I think that every soul who feels his own unfitness for the Beatific Vision (and who does not feel this?) must wish for such a state of preparation, even though attended with a cleansing punishment. The lack of this idea in Protestantism leads, I think, to an objectionable feature in their system,—namely, the altogether improbable and presumptuous supposition that the soul of some monster of depravity can straightway enter the society of heaven, provided only that he says, at the last moment of his ill-spent life, that he repents and believes in Jesus as the Son of God. Christ’s Divine insight into the soul of the penitent thief, who hung beside His cross on Calvary, could justify, of course, His promise to him of an immediate entrance into Paradise; but that was a solitary instance, upon which one can hardly build much hope.

The statement, often loosely made, that, since ‘Jesus paid it all, all the debt I owe,’ a hardened criminal is thereby rendered instantaneously fit for Heaven, is dangerously demoralising. The Bible assures us that ‘there shall in no wise enter into the heavenly City of God anything that defileth, or that is defiled,’ and the acquisition of a pure character is not the affair of a moment by means of a death-bed repentance. I never shall forget the description in a Chicago paper, many years ago, of the hanging of a negro, who, on the night before his execution, was said to have repented of a peculiarly atrocious crime, and ‘knew that he was saved.’ The report was heralded by the flaring headline ‘Jerked to Jesus!’

This blasphemous alliteration probably did less harm, however, than the sensational story, which accompanied it, of the negro’s ‘edifying remarks’ which preceded his death. The idea of such a wretch going at once to Heaven was revolting to a sense of justice and even of decency. No Catholic would have supposed such a translation probable, or, save for a miracle, possible. We know, of course, nothing of what the purgatorial state may be, through which the soul must pass, to reach the sphere to which God calls it; but that some place of purification must exist for those who pass into eternity with no sufficient spiritual preparation, appears to me just, necessary and consoling.”

To this my friend replied as follows:—

I well remember the crudely blasphemous headline which you quote. It had a great success, and was accounted ‘clever,’ though I am sure its ribald, vulgar character shocked all in whom a consciousness of the dignity of life and of the majesty of death remained, even though they had no positive Christian faith. There is little, if any, analogy between the case of the wretched negro and that of the penitent thief, for the latter was redeemed by his humility and faith. He did not ‘know that he was saved.’ He confessed his guilt in a supreme moment, and admitted the justice of his punishment. Whether or not the grace given him by our Lord was the only one ever offered him, we are not told; but to this opportunity at least he did respond, and by a single aspiration expiated with his dying breath a life of crime.

That the consoling doctrine of Purgatory should appeal to you does not surprise me. There is hardly a religious system of antiquity in which some similar provision is not found. It was left for the ‘Reformers’ of the sixteenth century to reject this immemorial dogma of the Church. When they denied the sanctity of the Mass and many other sacramental features of Catholicism, the doctrine of Purgatory went with the rest. If the souls of the dead pass instantly into an eternally fixed state, beyond the efficacy of our intercessions, then all our requiems, prayers and similar practices are vain. But if, on the contrary, we believe in the Communion of Saints,—that is, in the intercommunion of the three-fold Church,—militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, and triumphant in Heaven,—then we on earth can influence, and be influenced by, the souls who have crossed the border.

Few, indeed, quit this life in a state of purity and grace which warrants their immediate entrance into Heaven. Still fewer, let us hope, are those to whom the blessed refuge of Purgatory,— that half-way house of our dead,— is closed. I cannot conceive how Protestants can believe as they do on this point, nor is it astonishing that their rejection of Purgatory has been followed, in the case of many, by the elimination of a belief in Hell; for the latter doctrine, taken alone, is monstrous. In fact, all Catholic doctrines are interdependent; they stand or fall together. You cannot pick stones out of the arch, and expect it to stand, for it will not do so. Purgatory is one of the most humane and beautiful conceptions imaginable. How many mothers’ aching hearts has it not soothed and comforted with hope for some dead, wayward son!

Soon after receiving this letter, I read the following words from Mallock:—”As to the doctrine of Purgatory, time goes on, and the view men take of it is changing. It is fast becoming recognised, that it is the only doctrine that can bring a belief in future rewards and punishments into anything like accordance with our notions of what is just and reasonable; and so far from its being a superfluous superstition, it will be seen to be just what is demanded at once by reason and morality.” My attention was at this time also called to the fact that the idea of Purgatory is no longer confined exclusively to Roman Catholic Christians. At a recent General Convention of Episcopalians in America resolutions looking towards prayer for the dead were defeated by only a very small majority.

The doctrine of the Catholic Church in reference to Purgatory states that there is such a place, in which souls suffer for a time, before they can be admitted to the joys of Heaven, because they still need to be cleansed from certain venial sins, infirmities and faults, or still have to discharge the temporal punishment due to mortal sins, which is as yet uncancelled, though the lasting punishment of those sins has been forgiven and removed through Christ’s atonement. Furthermore, the Church declares, that by our prayers and by the acceptable sacrifice of the Mass we may still help those souls, through the merits of Christ.

Beyond this statement the Church’s formal doctrine does not go; but it is not an article of Catholic faith that there is in Purgatory any material fire. It is generally believed that souls in Purgatory suffer spiritual anguish from the fact that they then feel acutely, as they could not do on earth, the perfect happiness from which they are for a time excluded, while they must also understand the enormity of the sins which they committed against their Heavenly Father and their Savior.

The entire story is here.
*****

What follows now are a few thoughts from Saint, and Doctor of the Church, Alphonsus Liguori, on our duty to pray for the faithful departed souls in Purgatory. This is from the Introduction to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society. With a book title like that, it’s got to be good!

The practice of recommending to God the souls in Purgatory, that He may mitigate the great pains which they suffer, and that He may soon bring them to His glory, is most pleasing to the Lord and most profitable to us. For these blessed souls are His eternal spouses, and most grateful are they to those who obtain their deliverance from prison, or even a mitigation of their torments. When, therefore, they arrive in Heaven, they will be sure to remember all who have prayed for them. It is a pious belief that God manifests to them our prayers in their behalf, that they may also pray for us.

It is true these blessed souls are not in a state to pray for themselves, because they are so to speak, criminals atoning for their faults. However, because they are very dear to God, they can pray for us, and obtain for us, the divine graces. St. Catherine of Bologna, when she wished to obtain any grace, had recourse to the souls in Purgatory, and her prayers were heard immediately. She declared that, by praying to those holy souls she obtained many favors which she had sought through the intercession of the saints without obtaining them. The graces which devout persons are said to have received through the holy souls are innumerable.

But, if we wish for the aid of their prayers, it is just, it is even a duty, to relieve them by our suffrages. I say it is even a duty; for Christian charity commands us to relieve our neighbors who stand in need of our assistance. But who among all our neighbors have so great need of our help as those holy prisoners? They are continually in that fire which torments more severely than any earthly fire. They are deprived of the sight of God, a torment far more excruciating than all other pains.

Let us reflect that among these suffering souls are parents, or brothers, or relatives and friends, who look to us for succor. Let us remember, moreover, that being in the condition of debtors for their sins, they cannot assist themselves. This thought should urge us forward to relieve them to the best of our ability. By assisting them we shall not only give great pleasure to God, but will acquire also great merit for ourselves.

And, in return for our suffrages, these blessed souls will not neglect to obtain for us many graces from God, but particularly the grace of eternal life. I hold for certain that a soul delivered from Purgatory by the suffrages of a Christian, when she enters paradise, will not fail to say to God: “Lord, do not suffer to be lost that person who has liberated me from the prison of Purgatory, and has brought me to the enjoyment of Thy glory sooner than I have deserved.

For all the answers on Purgatory (and on Indulgences) that you want to know, but are afraid to ask, click on the hotlinks you just passed over. You’ll be glad you did.

Because Marriage is Supernatural

My husband Greg and I just returned from a 24-hour getaway to Cold Spring, New York in the Hudson Valley (pictured at left) Our sons stayed with neighbors and a friend visited our home to take care of the puppy. We took some time to hike and to celebrate Greg’s 46th birthday, reconnecting as a couple, away from the constant demands of children, jobs, pets, bills, and home repairs.

We married 17 years ago at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the intervening years, we’ve witnessed many of our friends’ and siblings’ marriages dissolve. And we have weathered losses and challenges: two miscarriages, the life-threatening illness of one of our newborns, Greg’s near death in the World Trade Center, seasons of unemployment, financial stress and so on. What has kept our marriage thriving through crises and also through the sometimes grinding monotony of daily living? Our unwavering commitment to one another, the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and the recognition that our relationship has a supernatural dimension.

Marriages were around long before Christ was born. Catholic marriage is one of the seven sacraments; Christ himself performed his first public miracle at the Wedding at Cana. In the Catholic tradition, the ministers of this sacrament are not the priest, but the man and woman who are marrying. This is because the sign of the marriage are the vows the spouses make to one another.

Seventeen years ago, the vows we exchanged were sincere. “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” But those vows only came to life when we faced moments of great joy or deep sadness.

Perhaps my favorite moment of our wedding ceremony came when everyone gathered sang this hymn. I didn’t know much Catholic philosophy or theology or history then. I did know we were enveloped by love – the love of  one another, by the love our families and friends, and most particularly, by the love of a God who never abandons us. 


http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/Fij3NgflEPs&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0

Because Immanuel Is His Name

The other day I wrote a post about how small an amount of time I am committing to Our Lord. The number I came up with was shockingly small. Given the years I wandered in the wilderness, the number probably has a couple of more zeros to the right of the decimal point. But that is in the past.

One fact about Our Lord is He doesn’t keep bringing up the past and how much I neglected Him or, more accurately in my case, flat-out ignored Him. Now I think of Him constantly. Our reader Rose wrote that her spiritual director has suggested that she remember that Our Lord is only “an awareness away.” Allison suggested praying the LOTH as another way to keep our Lord before us. I rely on these two tools daily.

Webster wrote once about Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God. So simple, so easy that it is often overlooked to just think of God. Brother Lawrence did so constantly and I have read of his practice more than once during my walks to and from daily mass.

There is no known portrait of my friend Wu Li, SJ so I’m going to have to make-do with this one. Just a portrait of a wise looking Chinese man is enough for my mind to bring Wu to life.

A few days ago, I received my copy of Jonathan Chaves’ book, Singing of the Source: Nature and God and the Poetry of Chinese Painter Wu Li. I am so thankful that Chaves translated these beautiful poems for us all. This book belongs on every Catholic’s bookshelf.

The following poem in particular has had a profound impact on me.  It is from a series entitled Singing of the Source and Course of Holy Church. These words speak of our Triune God as He is, and as He is in the Eucharist, and how thankful I feel when I partake of Communion with Him.

Utterly transcendent, His wondrous essence
was never limited to place;
to bring life to the teeming people
He showed Himself, then hid.
Effortlessly, a single standard—
a new cake baked for us;
as before, the six directions have one supreme Lord.
In the human realm, now we have
a whole burnt offering;
in Heaven for eternity is preserved our daily bread.
I have incurred so many transgressions,
yet am allowed to draw near;
with body and soul fully sated,
tears moisten my robe.

So Wu Li felt the same way as I do when partaking of the Eucharist. Thoughts of gratitude and happiness because behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). He is here. God is with us and He is as Good as His Name.

Because Lena Horne Found Solace in the Church

Once I read that her funeral was to be held in a Roman Catholic Church, I kept reading obituaries of Lena Horne, hoping to find clues to her own faith journey. Ms. Horne, an African-American who broke racial barriers in the entertainment industry, died last week at age 92. I never did find an article explaining how this amazing civil rights activist and entertainer chose to have her funeral in a Catholic Church, but here is what I could glean. I pray that her enchanting voice is joining the chorus of angels in eternity.
Many clues about Ms. Horne’s faith life came from the most comprehensive obituary I could find, not surprisingly, in the New York Times. Her funeral Mass, attended by hundreds of mourners, was celebrated at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Its former pastor, the Rev. Walter F. Modrys, S.J., met  Ms. Horne at a dinner party when she was in her 70s.

“That was quite intimidating,” he said. “What does a rather ordinary and reserved Catholic priest say to Lena Horne?” They struck up a conversation about “feeling shy in front of people.” One can infer that the two became close, because other reports recount how she took her family to that parish for years on Easter Sundays and how Rev. Modrys attended her 80th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center.

Ms. Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvestant section of Brooklyn. Her father was a numbers kingpin and left the family when she was three. What followed was a life of travel with her mother, who was herself an entertainer. Ms. Horne dropped out of high school and joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York. Eventually, she moved to Hollywood and became an international superstar. Among her accolades –  four Grammys and a Tony. She disappeared from the public sphere about 10 years ago.

She long was politically active, particularly in the Civil Rights Movement. This activism began when she refused to sing during World War II for the USO when African-American servicemen were seated behind the German POWs. (The Army then would not integrate the audiences with white and black American soldiers).” She participated in the March on Washington, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws and visited President John Kennedy at the White House a couple of days before his assassination.

A glimpse into her value system came in 2004, after ABC announced that Janet Jackson would play Horne in a TV biography of her life. In the weeks following Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” debacle during the 2004 Super Bowl, however,it was reported that Horne had demanded Jackson be dropped from the project. “ABC executives resisted Horne’s demand,” according to the Associated Press, “but Jackson representatives told the trade newspaper that she left willingly after Horne and her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, asked that she not take part.”

So what did I learn from these accounts of her life? Lena Horne used her God-given talents during a difficult time in American history, entertaining us with her beauty and the beauty of her voice and while also raising her voice to fight for social justice. At the end of her days, she found friendship with a Catholic priest and comfort and joy in attending her home parish. I am reminded of what St. Paul said in his first letter to the church in Corinth:


There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service, the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

Lena Horne, known best for her signature song Stormy Weather, walked through stormy weather all her days, never forgetting to share her gifts and to fight for justice. Now we pray she has walked into the arms of a loving Father who never abandoned her and never will.

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Because Nothing Matters, Until Everything Does

Allison recently wrote a good post about soccer and sports. I want to be clear: This is not a rebuttal to her post. I agree with much of what she had to say in that post, and with many of the comments as well. But forget sports, school work, home work, our careers, our relationships, our involvement in society, our intelligence, our physical gifts or impediments for a second. None of it matters unless our love of Christ is the center of our existence. For as Qoheleth says in Ecclesiastes, all is vanity. However, when we are Christ centered people, then everything matters.

You may remember from an earlier post that I hinted that I am a gearhead. I willfully dismantled a perfectly good engine in my Mustang in an effort to make it better, stronger, faster. I did this before I became a Catholic. I have always had an interest in motors, engines, airplanes, trucks, etc. I was just born with this attraction and with mechanical ability. So, new exhaust manifolds, intake manifold, cylinder heads, fuel injectors, camshaft—all were removed and replaced in my driveway with hand tools and moxie back in 1999.

Just to see if I still could, I swapped the cylinder heads on the motor again in 2002 (after my near brush with death). And actually, I had blown a head gasket and took that incident as an opportunity to add ported and polished heads.  That is an example of clear, focused, gearhead thinking for you. In 2005, I drove this car 2100 miles across the country from California to our new home. She is a runner and one spirited pony. And none of this matters for my salvation. That is, until it did.

A few months after our move, she (cars are feminine) broke down and I couldn’t figure out the problem. I started her up one day and she was running really rough. I opened the hood, checked the spark-plug wires, fuel injectors, sensors, etc. All was fine. But still, the motor had a wicked shimmy and was seemingly trying to tear herself off the motor mounts. Have I lost you with all the gearhead jargon? Sorry. Long story short, I put the pony to pasture for a while because I was busy with other chores, like building a stair-case and contemplating swimming the Tiber.

Eventually (over a year later) I finished the home improvement projects and decided to tackle the engine problem again. Knowing my limitations though, I took it to a professional. I learned early on that throwing money and personal labor at problems a professional can diagnose quicker and cheaper is silly. The problem? The harmonic balancer was slipping off the crankshaft key.

The balancer is a big counterweight that dampens the vibrations in the mechanical workings of an internal combustion engine. It probably went a little off kilter when I swapped the camshaft, and eventually it manifested itself as a wicked shimmy. See this photograph? The balancer is that thingy that looks like a wheel on the end of the crankshaft. Without the balancer, centered perfectly on the crankshaft, the engine will tear itself apart. With the balancer in place, the engine will run smoothly.

At the time my car’s motor broke, I was wrestling with my practice of Christianity. I knew that up to this time in my life, Christ definitely had not been the center of my existence. I had pushed him way out on the periphery. Of course, by doing that, the big counterweight that should have been my center was removed. Thus all the other moving parts in my life were vying for the central position. As a result, I was running as rough as my Mustang motor had been with the broken balancer. So this idea popped into my gearhead–Joe Sixpack mind: Christ is our harmonic balancer.

The idea of having Christ at our center isn’t mine, it is God’s. And this handy little diagram isn’t my idea either. But until the motor in my Mustang broke, I didn’t really “get” the ramifications of not having Christ as the center. This incident with the harmonic balancer was when theory and practical application came together for me. It is why I understand that putting sports, or anything else for that matter, at the center of your life instead of Christ will lead to oblivion.

Is this the shortest parable on record? I don’t really know, and truthfully, I haven’t checked. If it isn’t, though, it’s close.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is recorded as having said this in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 13). And there we all are as Catholics and Christians—yeast to be mixed in with the flour of the rest of the world so that the mixture is leavened and the loaf can rise. In the same Gospel, while giving His Sermon on the Mount He also says,
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
The Desert Fathers chucked everything and headed into the desert to pray and wait. I don’t have that option because I was called to be a father and a husband. And I understand that I am called to put Christ first in my life. I have found the Catholic Church to be the place where I can do this most effectively. And all of my God-given talents and abilities are to be put to good use and for His greater glory. The same is true for my wife and our children.
So be it sports, school work, home work, careers, relationships, involvement as citizens, our intelligence, our physical gifts or impediments, et cetera, et cetera, with Christ in his rightful and central place in our lives, everything we do, or think, or say, matters for our salvation.
Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War was not a Catholic or a Christian. Heck, he couldn’t have been because he lived in China around 500 BC. But I think he would have made a good Catholic Christian and he would understand where his loyalties must lie as a disciple of the True King. Note this saying of his,
The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
The same is true for us privates and gearheads too.

Because This Is My Church

Back to morning mass today for the first time in ten days. And why not, when you worship in a church as beautiful as St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly?

I know there are many who look at the Catholic Church as wealthy and its real estate as a tragic waste of resources. Couldn’t all the money that went into building this church (100 years ago) and thousands of others have been better used to feed the poor?

Consider that each pane of stained glass, each star painted in gold leaf on the wall behind the altar was put there not to enrich some prelate but to praise God. An antiphon from morning prayer today asks us to consider praise as the proper sacrifice to God. By praising God in a church as beautiful as this, I momentarily disconnect from my selfishness and especially from my belief that I made myself, I control my life, I am in charge. For a few moments, I give up, I sacrifice this mistaken sense of myself as enlightened, powerful, right. And I can come into a state in which I am receptive to God’s will and to the true beauty and goodness of His creation. The poor in me, that quiet kernel of goodness in me and in you, my brother and sister, is fed.

Blessed are the poor who can worship in a church as beautiful as this.

[Thanks again to Adam DesRosiers for his beautiful photograph. Adam's wife Jenn gave birth to their first child, Julian DesRosiers, last Thursday. Mother and son are doing fine, and Adam was last seen skipping down the street with a dazed look on his face.]


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