Friday, November 25, 2011

What the Church should do.

Yesterday I went to my final Mass in the old (it's old) translation of the Novus Ordo (it's novus). For the last time, I responded to the priest's "The Lord be with you" with "And also with you." Tomorrow evening, at sundown, the Catholic Church in America rejoins the rest of the world: "And with your spirit," "my most grievous fault," "on earth peace to people of goodwill."

There are many more changes--some small, some great--and we are blessed to have them. It is always good to be reminded that the Church in America is not the center of salvation history, but rather only one, small place that is home to a small number of saints among the vast throng of the saints throughout time and the world. Our words can be more closely joined to theirs and so our hearts and minds formed to be more like theirs. (Note to Catholics who haven't been to Mass in a long time: You may feel confused and alienated if you come home this Christmas. Don't worry--everyone else is a little lost, too!)

The "change," which is more specifically a reform, has been in the works for decades. Along the way, at every mention of it, in every social, academic, and liturgical circle I've walked, I have heard the invariable phrase, "The Church should..."

"The Church should..." is often followed immediately by, "The Church has not..." or "The Church isn't doing it right." Then--if the conversation continues--we hear that "the Church burned the heretics." "The Church persecuted Jews." "The Church has failed to listen to its people (meaning, to me)." "The Church never explained that very well."

All change inspires such a litany of accusations and complaints.

The missing element of these litanies, however, is this: I am a piece of the Church. What I find the Church has failed to do, I have also failed to do. What I believe I have done well, the Church may rightfully claim it has done well in me. I am as guilty of this as... well, as the entire Church. I find smug self-satisfaction in complaining about priests who have hurt me, priests who have failed to teach, prophets who have spoken falsely, and theologians who claim the authority of bishops. It's so easy and nice for Catholics--and for any apostolic church--to blame the "institution," rather than ourselves. It's so convenient to blame the Catholic Church for why I am a Bad Catholic.

If we feel that "the Church" has failed to educate us in the Faith, that we have been handed this translation with little or no explanation, and that "the Church" has, once again, just told us all what to do, then we would do well to take action. But the action should not be to tear down "the Church."

The action is, first, to assume the best. The Church is, for all her broken members, our Mother. We have never been betrayed by our Mother--only by her very bad children. The first action is to make this distinction in our hearts.

The second action is this: run to Mother. That means: get on the Internet (you're on already!), search Google, and find what the Mother says. Ignore the Bad Children. The Mother--the apostles, the Desert Fathers, the Doctors, the saints--has spoken. Her words are available to us (in English!) directly. There is no end of resources for Catholics today: no one with Internet access or a library card can claim that "the Church" hasn't explained herself. If you feel like there's no real reason for some teaching, some reform, some change to the liturgy, then go find out what the reason is. There is always a reason--usually more reasons than we could grasp in a lifetime.

The third action is this: pray for submission. "Submission" is an ugly word around these parts (i.e., America and the West), but think about it. "Sub" means "under," and "mission" comes from the Latin for "to send." The mission of the Church--what God has put before us to do--is something we should want to be "under." If we don't, we should at least want to want to be under it. Our hearts can change from the frustrated, petulant "the Church should..." to a humble, peaceful "I should."

There is profound joy in submission--even for amateur intellectuals. There is profound freedom and peace in the realization that my failure is my own, but my goodness is the power of God--beauty of the eternal--simply being in me. So, when changes come and our hearts fret and we feel betrayed by "the Church," let us assume our Mother loves us, let us seek to know her mind, and finally let us pray for hearts conformed to her mind.

And let the feast begin!

(Not)Dead Poets Month: a guy named Brandon.

This was floating around Facebook. Thank you, Melanie!

I thank you, Lord, for fruitful fields,
for wide and healthful skies,
and for the fact not everyone
who is out at war will die;
and for the limits you have placed
on corruption and despite,
that we need only deal with them
a dozen times each night.

I thank you, Lord, for cheerful suns
that rise at every dawn,
and that my students learn to hide
the sound and sight of yawn,
that education is a joy,
filled with love and awe,
and, on those crazy grading days,
that there are murder laws.

I thank you that we live here free
in houses without bars,
that there are things that we can own,
that no one owns the stars,
that joy and virtue freely flow
without a market price
while we have markets fully full
of grain and fruit and spice.

I thank you, Lord, for politics,
for presidents and such,
that they work so hard to get their way,
that they never get it much,
who teach us that the foolish thirst
to rule and reign on high
dishonor brings upon our hearts
when to ourselves we lie.

Thank you, Lord, for infant smiles
and children bright at play,
for all the crabbed and silly souls
who annoy us every day.
(We appreciate those most, O Holy Lord,
those crosses that we bear,
and we thank you that we are not bald
from pulling out our hair.)

Thank you, Lord, for mirrors,
for when I most despise
the follies of my fellow man,
I look, and see pride's lies.
And thank you, God, for mysteries
you have left for us to solve
upon this strangely floating ball
that rotates and revolves.

Thank you for your mercy,
which saves us from the brink;
and thank you, Lord, for righteous wrath,
we need it more, I think.
Thank you for all gentle souls
who can their tempers keep;
protect them, Lord, from the rest of us,
lest we kill them in their sleep.

And for all the blissful marriages!
There are three of them, at least,
and given how hard the whole thing is,
that's quite an abundant feast.
And for all the others as well, my Lord;
they stall and sputter and spin
like well-loved cars that barely move,
they're so nicely broken-in.

And also for the ones that fail,
as they might have been worth the try
if they had words that told it straight,
and laughs, and gentle sighs,
and that they in their saddest loss
yet stand as vivid sign
that the commitment is to person there,
not a signature on a line.

Thank you, Lord, for critics
who attack with whip and flail,
and for reviewers and polemicists,
and, because of them, for hell.
And thank you, Lord, for stupid folk,
that we can clearly see
all the things that shock the mind
from which none of us are free.

And thank you for those shocking times
when pedants who lecture all
on every foolish folly
into those follies fall,
for it teaches us the wisdom
of gentleness and restraint,
lest we in turn be painted
with the brush by which we paint.

Thank you for absurdities;
they overflow the bank,
so if I but thank you for each one,
I'll never cease to thank.
And thank you for sweet irony;
it gives the wit to see
that all the things we moan about
may be thanksgiving's seed.

But most of all, I thank you, Lord,
that long before we die,
we can see ourselves with wry regard,
and laugh until we cry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dead Poets Month: Joy Davidman.

We have snow, so casual, lovely, for Thanksgiving. I can only think of this poem, by the woman who would later be famous for marrying CS Lewis. A formidable poet in her own right.

Snow in Madrid

Softly, so casual,
Lovely, so light, so light,
The cruel sky lets fall
Something one does not fight.
How tenderly to crown
The brutal year
The clouds send something down
That one need not fear.
Men before perishing
See with unwounded eye
For once a gentle thing
Fall from the sky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dead Poets Month: the Psalmist.

I've been fretting.

Christmas songs blaring in the stores. Somehow, "Let it Snow" sets off all my puny rage and I spend the day in a funk over the ills in the world. Everything--from Soviet Russia to Health and Human Services to dirty socks under the couch--brings me to tears.

And then, the psalms step in. Perhaps the greatest poetry of all time, the psalms take all the darkness, name it, and give it over to light.

From today's Office of Readings, here is Psalm 37.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not envy those who do evil:
for they wither quickly like grass
and fade like the green of the fields.

If you trust in the Lord and do good,
then you will live in the land and be secure.
If you find your delight in the Lord,
he will grant your heart’s desire.

Commit your life to the Lord,
trust in him and he will act,
so that your justice breaks forth like the light,
your cause like the noon-day sun.

Be still before the Lord and wait in patience;
do not fret at the man who prospers;
a man who makes evil plots
to bring down the needy and the poor.

Calm your anger and forget your rage;
do not fret, it only leads to evil.
For those who do evil shall perish;
the patient shall inherit the land.

A little longer–and the wicked shall have gone.
Look at his place, he is not there.
But the humble shall own the land
and enjoy the fullness of peace.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dead Poets Month: Isaac Watts for Christ the King.

The liturgical year draws to a close, and the man-God reigns from the cross. My heart is singing "Crown Him," but Isaac Watts' beautiful words and the gentler, peaceful melody fit the November days.

Have a beautiful feast, give thanks for the year, and remember you are a son of the king.

  1. When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,
    And pour contempt on all my pride.
  2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.
  3. See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
  4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It ain't poetry, but it's close.

Regarding the outright disdain layered upon parents of large families, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach tells it like it is.

“Why are people impressed that Jay Leno owns 20 motorcycles, but disgusted that some religious families choose to have 10 children?

Let’s not finesse the response. We all know why. A world that has lost its innocence has trouble appreciating beings who are innocent. A world that has become selfish has soured to the idea of leading a life of selflessness. A world that has become grossly materialistic is turned off to the idea of more dependents who consume resources. And a world that mistakenly believes that freedom means a lack of responsibility is opposed to the idea of needy creatures who ‘tie you down...’

By just looking at my children, I become more innocent. By loving them, I become more noble. By spending my money on them rather than myself, I find transcendence. And by being a father and liberating all of the love in my heart, my spirit soars free."

Amen to that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dead Poets Month: George Herbert.

From a dear friend, this by George Herbert.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here."
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Visions of Judgment

With the end of the Church year upon us, HG Wells' short story "A Vision of Judgment" seemed appropriate--both to the liturgy and the general malaise settling over the political candidates and their constituents alike.

Wells is not (disclaimer!) attempting to communicate facts about the End Times, nor is he attempting to formulate new and heretical doctrine about the nature of God and the new heavens and new earth.

The point of the story is that evil is banal. Sin is boring. The narrator arrives at the Day of Judgment and sees everyone: Darwin and Henry VIII make an appearance, as does his publisher. The first man to be judged is lifted up onto God's palm and ordered to tell all of creation his sins. He does so:

I was a king," said the little figure, "a great king, and I was lustful
and proud and cruel. I made wars, I devastated countries, I built palaces,
and the mortar was the blood of men. Hear, O God, the witnesses against
me, calling to you for vengeance. Hundreds and thousands of witnesses." He
waved his hands towards us. "And worse! I took a prophet--one of your

"One of my prophets," said the Lord God.

"And because he would not bow to me, I tortured him for four days and
nights, and in the end he died. I did more, O God, I blasphemed. I robbed
you of your honours----"

"Robbed me of my honours," said the Lord God.

"I caused myself to be worshipped in your stead. No evil was there but I
practised it; no cruelty wherewith I did not stain my soul. And at last
you smote me, O God!"

God raised his eyebrows slightly.

"And I was slain in battle. And so I stand before you, meet for your
nethermost Hell! Out of your greatness daring no lies, daring no pleas,
but telling the truth of my iniquities before all mankind."

He ceased. His face I saw distinctly, and it seemed to me white and
terrible and proud and strangely noble. I thought of Milton's Satan.

God asks whether all this is true. The Angel Gabriel answers that, well, yes. In a manner of speaking, all this is true. But then he goes on to tell the true story: The king had a bad stomach, he ate too much... the Angel reads out all the little, stupid sins and weaknesses that destroy "the dignity of defiance."

The king who imagined himself a great individual, unmatched in his accomplishments (evil though they were), was in fact not unlike the hairy prophet he tortured and killed. An upset stomach tempts us to rage. An embarrassing belch tempts us to imagine our importance offended. And on and on.

By the end of the litany, shame overcomes the little king.

The Wicked Man on God's hand began to dance and weep. Suddenly shame overcame him. He made a wild rush to jump off the ball of God's little finger, but God stopped him by a dexterous turn of the wrist. Then he made a rush for the gap between hand and thumb, but the thumb closed. And all the while the angel went on reading--reading. The Wicked Man rushed to and fro across God's palm, and then suddenly turned about and fled up the sleeve of God.

The whole story is really a treat. I should like to read it to my children--once they have reached the rhetorical stage. It is good to laugh at sin, especially when the evils of the world seem to weigh us down and the hours are long and dark in the night.

We are all as infants before God, before judgment. We can't even distinguish our selves from others by rebellion. There is nothing new under the sun.

There is only home. We only need the sense to run toward it.

Dead Poets Month: Gerard Manley Hopkins

This one is new to me. I'm leaving in the accents found on Bartleby's website, because Hopkins is so very odd in his emphases. Read it out loud and try bobbing your head every time you say an accented word--it helps with the rhythm.

Line 11 is the reassurance and the reasoned line: The just man "acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is." To do this is to live authentically, to be fully human: to act in accordance with who we are. Do it, momma, do it.

34. As kingfishers catch fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dead Poets Month: D.H. Lawrence

I'm barely familiar with Lawrence, but this poem reminds me of falling in love when I was 16.

And because he was Todd, the story has a happy continuance.

Letter from Town: The Almond Tree
You promised to send me some violets. Did you forget?
 White ones and blue ones from under the orchard hedge?      
 Sweet dark purple, and white ones mixed for a pledge    
Of our early love that hardly has opened yet.        

Here there’s an almond tree—you have never seen            
 Such a one in the north—it flowers on the street, and I stand      
 Every day by the fence to look up for the flowers that expand    
At rest in the blue, and wonder at what they mean.        

Under the almond tree, the happy lands      
 Provence, Japan, and Italy repose,      
 And passing feet are chatter and clapping of those    
Who play around us, country girls clapping their hands.        

You, my love, the foremost, in a flowered gown,      
 All your unbearable tenderness, you with the laughter      
 Startled upon your eyes now so wide with hereafter,     
You with loose hands of abandonment hanging down.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dead Poets Month: the Wisdom Authors

I often forget the power of the Book of Wisdom, one of the seven Sapiential books in the Old Testament (it is not included in the Bibles of the Protestant communities).

These lines open today's first reading in the Liturgy of the Word.

When peaceful stillness compassed everything
and the night in its swift course was half spent,
Your all-powerful word, from heaven's royal throne bounded,
a fierce warrior,
into the doomed land,
bearing the sharp sword of your inexorable decree.
And as he alighted, he filled every place with death;
he still reached to heaven, while he stood upon the earth.

Wisdom 18.14-16

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dead Poets Month: John Updike


The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain

~John Updike, A Child's Calendar

Image Source.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dead Poets Month.

November is usually my Dead Poets month. Not because I liked the movie (I didn't).

This year, however, we have somehow arrived at November 9 without a single living poem from a dead man. To remedy that, and because all philosophers desperately need poetry in their lives, here is my darling Yeats.

To a Young Girl

My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

Through the Year with Padre Pio.

St. Padre Pio became one of my very dearest friends last year--he battled for me when I was too exhausted or depressed to even pray. If you buy me a coffee, I'll tell you the whole story.

So I jumped at the chance to review Through the Year with Padre Pio, a collection of his letters and sayings edited by Patricia Treece. This book is so sweet: for every day of the year, there is a brief excerpt from Padre, followed by a parallel Scripture passage. It's simple, gentle material for lectio divina and a great companion to the Divine Office.

The prevailing popular impression of the Padre is one of a cranky, crotchety old gheezer who yelled at women in the confessional. There are grounds for that impression (although, don't you think that even church ladies ought to be yelled at once in a while?). But the overwhelming written evidence is of a man filled with mirth, gentleness, wisdom, and peace. After spending several weeks with him, day by day, you will be chastised but happier.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Through the Year with Padre Pio. They also have some beautiful Advent wreaths!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Miriam and a postcard from the volcano.

Yesterday, the Scientist Dad stayed home from the university so that I could go meet with a priest for spiritual direction and Confession. It was blessed.

This afternoon, as I sliced red peppers and whisked together the curry, 3-year-old Bella queried:

"Miwiam, why dost (she really says dost) Mummy have to go to Kerfeshun?"

The Mother Superior responded, "Well, Belly, sometimes Mommy is a Bad Catholic. So, she has to go and tell the priest, who is really Jesus just for a minute, that she was a Bad Catholic. Then she is a Good Catholic again, until she does something else bad. Then, if she wants to be a Good Catholics again, she has to go back and tell Father."

Yes. That just about sums it up. It's simple. Baptism: We are all good Catholics. We get lazy, we drift, we fall asleep on the watch, we sin. Bad Catholics. The fix is simple: if we want to be good again, we just tell father.

I loved the "if," which reminds me:
I'm finishing Lucy Beckett's A Postcard from the Volcano, a fabulous crash course in 20th-century history, the Western canon, and... well, all of Western philosophy. (I have raved about her In the Light of Christ, a more formal introduction to the canon.) Not to give it away, but one of the main characters, originally a convert to Catholicism, ends up spending three years without the sacraments. He attends Mass, sitting in the back row, but never reconciles with the Church. In effect, a Bad Catholic.

Max's dearest friend, Adam, questions him: Why has he stayed away so long? His affair had ended, his 18 months of the lusts of the world had ended, tragically in an abortion. Why had he not confessed, been absolved, and returned home? Max's answer is poignant.

During his time of "real life," in the world of sex, drugs, and jazz (no rock 'n' roll in pre-War Germany), he had found himself feeling alive, feeling unhappy, but electric. His lover would tell him, "You're not really a Prussian bureaucrat who only likes Brahms. You just look like one, talk like one, work like one. Take it all off with your clothes." And he did. He even felt relief when she had the abortion--although he also immediately left her--just because he wouldn't be tied down to her forever.

He tells Adam he is uncertain now--after it all--of who he is, what he believes, even of God's interest in him. Confession seems too certain, Mass only a fragment of his self. How can he confess a sin he enjoyed, a sin that he felt relief at?

Adam listens--and this is good--but then brings Max back to the simplicity: "Now listen to me. Eros is the only sickness for which we volunteer. You are anwerable for what happened between you and Eva, in a way that she's not, or not yet--no one knows... Your reaction to the abortion shows that you know [there was hardly any connexion between you]. It also shows that you understand the self-indulgence, the distance rom God, of the whole thing. You understood this all along. The fact that Eva didn't understand helped you to hide from the fact that you did."

Adam continues, "What I would like you to do is this. Tomorrow is Sunday. The village Mass is at nine. Come with me half an hour early and make your confession to Father Stanislaw. He's a good man--not that it matters what he's like. Tell him the simple facts. Be given absolution. be given Communion. Pray for your child. Pray for Eva. And for me."

And that is what they do. Then Max takes the train back to Breslau and realizes that he can once again play Bach. "Adam had restored him to a place where the truth was steady."

That's what Confession does. The sloth of sin and the the grime of accumulated falls make the world spin. Reality is unsteady. Was it really so bad? Did I even mess up? Does God really care?

The only clarification is in absolution. When you want to be a Good Catholic again, after you fight through all that grime and grasp the rock, the light breaks through.

I can play Bach again.

Miriam has the instinct, if her vocabulary is a little reminiscent of the 1950's CCD teacher. Mommy was, for a little while, a Good Catholic again. And I found that the truth was steady.

Come to think of it, I think Miriam's ready for her own First Confession. Next month.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Way and the Saints.

One of the most beautiful feasts of the year: The Solemnity of All Saints.

Reading and meditating on the lives of the saints is an act of true devotion to Christ. There is no better way, for such social creatures as human beings, to know and love God's ways, which are truly "not our ways." In them, God's light shone so clearly. We can only love God more for having known His children. And we, too, can only become His children in the company of our elder brothers and sisters.

"To become saints means to fulfill completely what we already are, raised to the dignity of God's adopted children in Christ Jesus... The saints bring to light in creative fashion quite new human potentialities... The saints are themselves the living spaces into which one can turn ... There is no isolation in heaven. It is ... the fulfillment of all human togetherness." ~Benedict XVI, via Magnificat