Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

17 September 2014

Books I Have Loved

One of the latest "challenges" being issued over the Internet is to name ten books that wielded a particular influence in your life. Most people just list them without any commentary, which is to be expected on Facebook. Until a few years ago a person's status wasn't allowed to exceed something like 420 characters. I suppose it is best to save the commentary for the blogs.

Therefore, in order of recollection, I present with exhausting commentary these ten books, along with an eleventh because I miscounted:

1. Existence and the Existent, by Jacques Maritain.
On our first day in the seminary, we had an ice-breaking exercise in which we were to obtain others' answers to various questions. I can remember only one question, to which I could give no answer: "Who is your favorite pre-Socratic philosopher?" (Today I can tell you without hesitation that my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher is Heraclitus of Ephesus.) Existence and the Existent is a rich treatise, addressing the "Problem of Evil" among other subjects. It demonstrates Maritain as a man of deep faith and reason. Around the same time, and in the same philosophical context, I encountered the second book.

2. I and Thou, by Martin Buber.
This work opened me up to the mystical relationship of philosophy and her mistress, theology. Before first reading this book, one of my seminary professors introduced us to the term "reification," from the Latin res, "thing." There is the perennial and pernicious temptation to treat our fellow human beings as things, means to an end. Engaging the other as a sacred experience, a "Thou" and not an "it," is the primary mode of human interaction, not to be ignored amid scientific, informational pursuits.

3. Light of the Word, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
One seminary professor used a volume of Von Bathasar's Theodrama in class. Some seminarians wanted no part in his work—or maybe the prof's interpretation of it; others ate it up and hungered for more. I was closer to the latter, but wished for a "For Dummies" version. One day as a younger priest I visited a classmate in Philadelphia. At the now-closed Pauline Books and Media store on "the [Roosevelt] Boulevard," I came across this book. It is no "For Dummies" adaptation, but rather a reflection on the Sunday readings. Very handy, very Balthasarian. It's good to have around.

4 Lift Up Your Heart, by Fulton Sheen
My first church job outside of St. Clair was as an organist for the now-defunct St. Francis de Sales Church in Mount Carbon, a suburb of Pottsville. The pastor, Fr. Edward B. Connolly, became a mentor and friend. He is known for owning many books. Once I asked to borrow this book. I read it quickly and savored every word. (Whatever is happening right now with Archbishop Sheen's cause for canonization, I hope they just knock it the hell off.) I wanted a copy for my own. This was before the days of the Internet, so I called every bookstore from Dan to Beersheba, to no avail. Then, when I had just about given up, I went for a walk over town to the St. Clair Emporium (a.k.a., "Zerdy's"). Now the Emporium is a hole-in-the-wall purveyor of staple items, most notably Sunbeam bread, Guers products, cigarettes, lunch meats, penny candy, and Italian Water Ice. The foremost source of revenue, for as long as I can recall, has been the Pennsylvania Lottery. Mr. Zerdy is not known for selling reading material, except for outdated magazines (all clean). I think the most recent Sports Illustrated issue on the shelf--to this day--features Mary Lou Retton's gold medal. Anyhow, that day he had a few shelves full of books, from an estate, I think: mostly romance novels, cookbooks, and late-1800s readers that would put our third-grade textbooks to shame. The only religious book in the whole lot was...a hardcover copy of Lift Up Your Heart. Checkmate, Atheists!

5. Death In Literature (?; a textbook used in a high school elective)
Mr. George Repella taught at Natvitiy B.V.M. High School for just over 50 years. A number of parishioners from past assignments, as well as some of the hospitalized I currently visit—even if they graduated thirty years before me—all share with me the auspicious experience of Mr. Repella. He taught "Death in Literature" with the eponymous textbook, introducing us to the literary perspectives of Dorothy Parker ("Résumé"), E. A. Robinson ("Richard Cory"), Jessica Mitford ("The American Way of Death"), and others. I did my class project on the Scripture and oration options from the Church's Order of Christian Funerals.

6. Marathon, by Hal Higdon
Several blog posts have treated my love of running. Although I started running in 1999 as part of a four-square fitness frenzy, my recent return happened a decade later. Per custom, I bought many books on the subject to make sure I was doing it right. Joe Muldowney's Running Shorts would have qualified for this list--runner-ups come to mind for several entries--but Higdon's fourth edition has served as the Bible to my running devotion. When I barely thought that 26.2 miles would be possible, Hal Higdon showed me how to start, what kinds of problems I might encounter along the way, and something of what it would feel like to cross the finish line.

7. Joey Adams’ Speakers’ Bible of Humor, by Joey Adams
In fourth grade I took the bus each morning to the former Blythe Township High School, then the site of several grades of the Saint Clair Area School District. (The building now houses the Simon Kramer Cancer Institute and the county Coroner's Office.) While browsing in the library I came across this dated tome. I rented out that book for the rest of the school year. I don't think anybody missed it. If the school knew some of the jokes in that book, I think they'd have pulled it. "And the eyes of both of them were opened...and so they hid themselves" (Genesis 3:7). I carried it around as if it were a textbook and I were a nerd. The Speakers' Bible was a perfect complement to old Match Game and new Hollywood Squares episodes.

8. Complete Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins
I first found Hopkins in the appendix of the Liturgy of the Hours. The "standard" religious ones: "Pied Beauty," "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord," "The May Magnificat." But then, thanks to this omnia opera, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" became my favorite. A line from it is the basis for this blog's very title: "Is the shipwrack then a harvest? Does tempest carry the grain for Thee?" I learned many things about Hopkins: It turns out that he was equally skilled in Welsh, Latin, and Greek. It further turns out that his family struggled with his embrace of Catholicism, and he himself struggled with same sex attraction. Here I can identify: His years as a teacher didn't go so well, at least from his perspective. Anyone who can retain a knowledge and love of God and the Engilsh language, yet be able to toy with both so adeptly, is my man.

9. People’s Mass Book (1970s), World Library Publications
In my earliest recollections of going to Mass, our parish used this hymnal. In the mid-1980s, we acquired a newer edition--though not the one specially commissioned for our diocese, the one that had "Here I Am, Lord" and several other Glory & Praise songs. As a little kid, I would sit upon my grandfather's knee and play the "Old PMB" hymns on my little Casio that didn't even let you play more than one note at once. Many of its tunes seem dated now, more suitable for a hootenanny than for the Sacred Liturgy, but I have a soft spot for them. While attending a retreat a few weeks ago I sat at the Hammond organ in the chapel and played these songs for about a half an hour. I count that time, and times like it, sitting at an organ bench and "letting my fingers (and feet) do the walking," as a spiritual experience.

10. The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer

Through this book I learned of the term "Ugly American" as embodied by certain disrespectful characters. Raised in a local culture that understandably and justifiably promoted love of country, and never having visited a foreign land until that point (either junior or senior year in high school, when American was a summer reading option), I did not consider the possibility that not everyone around the world adored Americans, or that Americans didn't deserve respect or deference simply because they were American. I felt bad that I couldn't fluently speak a modern foreign language. I still can't, but at least I see that as a deficit--especially when many visitors speak more than enough English to get by.

BONUS 11. Anguished English, Richard Lederer
One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was to sit on the floor in a bookstore and read a book until justice would demand I pay for it. (I'll bet the way they work that kind of thing out in purgatory will be interesting.) One of the first books I read in that fashion was this gem of Professor Richard Lederer, the first of a series. Replete with words, word origins, and wordplay, Anguished English increased my respect for my English teachers, and for anyone else whose command of the English language was such that they could fool around with it. That's the kind of person I wanted to be when I grew up. So far, so good!

14 September 2014

A Mirror of our Sinfulness, A Window to our Salvation

            Once again, a special feast trumps a Sunday in Ordinary Time—this one honoring the Holy Cross. This is not a celebration of planks of wood. It has been said, with no small amount of snark, that if someone assembled all the existing relics of the “True Cross," they could form a giant redwood. True or not, that statement betrays the great devotion Catholics have shown throughout the centuries to the Cross.

On every liturgical day the Church is celebrating our Incarnate Savior. In his letter to the Philippians Saint Paul reminds us that, by becoming man, God the Son set aside the glory of divinity (though not divinity itself). That “emptying of self” is what enabled Jesus to live a full human life, with the full array of joys and sorrows—in particular rejection and scorn, and above all the pains of His passion and death.

And yet God also experienced much of this from us prior to the Incarnation. Take, for example, the Israelites’ rejection of God at various points along their trek in the wilderness. Time and again Israel set aside the true God by worshipping foreign gods and treating people unjustly. Israel understood her chronic tragedies as God’s response to their sins, while in reality those tragedies were the consequences of participating sinfully in a sinful world.

While it is not accurate to portray God as fickle and sensitive as we human beings often are, this much is true: God is not pleased with sin, and He wants it out. In the account from Numbers, God instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that the afflicted can look upon that serpent and be healed. What is really happening in this transaction? God is holding a mirror up to the people’s faces, so that they can see what their sin has done to them, how it has disfigured God’s image in them to the point of nearly becoming unrecognizable. Only then can they acknowledge their sins and turn to Him who would restore them by His mercy to a greater beauty than before.

There is the wonder of the Cross: it is the instrument of our salvation because on it our Savior was lifted up in mingled shame and glory, thereby allowing us to perceive the double truth of our alienation from God in sin and God’s drawing us to Himself in love. With joy and gratitude we draw near to the Cross, and to its Occupant, for by that Holy Cross He has redeemed the world.

24 August 2014

Compelling Authority

This Gospel is the standard reference for Jesus establishing His Church upon the authority of Saint Peter. If you’ve ever been to Rome, or read or watched anything about St. Peter’s Basilica, you may know of those famous words etched along the center apse: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church”; Mt 16:18). Since St. Peter’s is so huge, part of the next verse also fits up there: Et tibi dabo claves regni cælorum (“And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”; 16:19).

There is a definite motion on Jesus’ part to gather people from Israel and from outside of Israel; "ecclesia" comes from the Greek "to call out" from various places to a point of assembly. Jesus forms the “New Israel” that knows no earthly boundaries. 

He further chooses Peter to safeguard and strengthen that people’s unity in belief, worship, lifestyle, and prayer. The apostles and their successors, the Bishops, and their priest-coworkers, continue to make this unity a living reality by absolving sins, and making pronouncements of doctrine and discipline. Their authority is not meant for bossing around, but rather for promoting people’s spiritual condition.

That wasn’t the popular impression years ago (depending on who you ask, it still may not be). We catch glimpses of that misconception in the apostles themselves, as we read of them being envious of one another, arguing with each other, even siccing their mothers on Jesus! An authoritarian mode can be prideful, giving the impression that the leaders are better off than the people, in a higher class. Institutions with human beings are subject to such unfortunate tendencies.

Today Jesus asks for a pulse reading from the apostles on who people think He is. They give several different readings: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or another prophet. You can imagine them chuckling at “how silly and uninformed these people are,” until Jesus turns the tables on them by asking the same question—the question at the very heart of the Gospels. Who is Jesus? What does He mean for you? 

You can almost hear the apostles stammering and shuffling their feet until Peter pipes up. (He was always known for having something to say.) What does he say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" "Good answer! Good answer!" the disciples said, as if they were on "Family Feud."
"We asked one hundred liturgists...oh, we had to scratch that survey, because we got one hundred different answers."
Here as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus acknowledges the faith of those who dare to enter into dialogue with Him. In other cases He healed people because of their faith—not really because they gave the "Number 1" answer, but because they gave the honest answer: because they opened their hearts to Him in relationship. 

Jesus always gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to Him as we are. When we open our hearts to the open Heart of Christ, He can work miracles within us. He gives our lives a share in His authority that moves people toward greater faith, hope, and charity—not in a bossy way, but definitely a compelling way.

Perhaps the greatest miracle is that God becomes real for us: infinitely more than a vending machine that’s supposed to give us what we ask for, something we might want to kick, or manipulate, when “it” doesn’t “work.” Growing up, that is to say, growing out of such a flawed appreciation of God, is a hard thing. It takes a lot. It takes life, but it also gives life.

13 August 2014

On Suicide and Surrounding Sicknesses: Further Reflections

After completing my previous post in memory of Robin Williams, I took to the webs and read even more on the subject of suicide and mental illness.

There is some worthy debate out there, of a more-than-merely-semantic nature, about the use of the term "selfish" in reference to suicide. First I encountered The Matt Walsh Blog, and later a contrary-minded piece by Dean Burnett from The Guardian. 

I don't want to be overly concerned about the disputations. "Take what you like, and leave the rest" is another one of those clever sayings I've heard over the years. Denizens of the blogosphere survive because of it. 

I summarize my takeaway from Walsh's offering from an excerpt of a tweet he included in the article: "It's not just clinical, it's spiritual." If by "not just" he means "but also," even "but primarily," it is acceptable. The soul is that which gives life to the body; the two are tailor-made for each other, and the soul is directly infused by the Author of Life, who cooperates with our parents in the sacred moment of our conception. I don't altogether dismiss his contention, but it requires some nuancing.

Concerning the central theme expressed in the article's title (Williams' "choice" of suicide): I do not judge the voluntariness of any particular suicide, as I state above. Nor can any man or woman fully plumb the darkness that impinges upon a profoundly depressed individual. In support of this, read Shaun McAfee's post, born of understanding and experience.

The claim that depression is a spiritual malady need not imply that "praying harder" or "thinking happier thoughts" or any merely human effort should do the trick, or that failing to do any of these things is defying or discounting God. Human persons suffer a profound deficit--a wound--in our nature, courtesy of original sin and compounded by personal sins. The wound manifests variously, but especially in the many forms of mental illness.

Burnett's article reinforces for me the reality that mental illness does not discriminate, and it disables the use of standard logic in those who suffer it. 

Warning of the supposed selfishness (or, if you will, "sinfulness") of suicide is not an adequate deterrent, instead providing further reinforcement of a negative self-image and assurance of others' (projected) ill feelings toward them. 

How exactly, I wonder, does one deter suicide, or alleviate depression? If depression is, as we often hear, "the common cold of mental illness," what's the prophylactic protocol? Upon hearing the first sneeze, is it time to say "God bless you" and start making funeral arrangements? "I speak like a foolish person" (2 Cor 11:21). Measures include prevention hotlines, therapy, medicine, personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness, and all the rest. 

The Sacraments, above all, have a healing effect on those who strive to partake of them with a pure heart. As I and others have noted, the attainment or maintenance of good feeling is not the aim of religion, and not even of spirituality (as if the twain never meet!); but Jesus did come "so that you
might have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10)!

But let's return to "personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness": that is the key!

'How are you,' he lied.

"How are you?" Pesky question, that. Blessed are they who respond courageously and honestly. Blessed, too, are they who care when they ask, and listen reverently to the response and all its undertow. It makes a difference, believe me.

Nobody has directly demanded a retraction of my use of the word "selfish," as people are focusing instead on blogs that garner appreciable traffic. I don't believe it's necessary, as my previous post did qualify it with the appropriate Church teaching on the factors that compromise freedom and understanding. 

In that brand of neurosis that normally calls for "podiatric dentistry," I will nevertheless shade my story by suggesting that suicide starts in a self-centered frame of mind. In his article Burnett speculates about people who take their own lives as a courtesy to those who, in their minds, couldn't care less, or more kindly, about them: an interior booby trap! Mental illnesses, like their corporeal counterparts, have a way of turning people in on themselves, their fearful projections of abandonment. When something--anything--is not right in me, I don't seem to care quite as much about others' problems, large or small.

Now self-concern can be a very good thing. When a life preserver surfaces, the drowning person will and should grasp for it. But there also remains the risk of self-pity and contempt for God, the "One with the infinite power" who does not seem to be too eager to remove this stumbling-block to belief in His omnipotence and goodness. God's silence in the face of physical and moral evil is the greatest scandal, likely underlying more of the New Atheism than New Atheists probably care to recognize.

To return to the first article of note, a spiritual solution is indicated. It is systemic in scope, and ultimately addresses what Pope Saint John Paul II called "the culture of death." Now I don't hold up Robin Williams or any other suicide victim as a billy club for the "culture war." Rather, every opportunity to affirm the value of our own existence, from generous parenthood to living wages to respect for the elderly to attentive listening to you-name-it: it's all the spiritual solution!

+ + + + +

Now my keener readers may have noted (though none openly) that my "In Memoriam" piece on Robin Williams failed to include a single recollection of the man--his generosity, sensitivity, faith, energy, or talent.

Comics appeal to the incongruous, the absurd. Prophet-like, they point out to us where things don't match up when they should. They don't so much predict the future but disclose and decry the peculiarities of the present. We laugh at comedians, because somewhere their truth resonates within us, especially when that truth contains a hint of tragedy.

Yes, I watched a number of episodes of "Mork and Mindy" (1978-82) when I was a kid. I enjoyed "Moscow on the Hudson," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dead Poets' Society," and a few other Williams films. But one more recent discovery has seized my interest, courtesy of another Burnett: Carol. Her show's 11-year run concluded in my toddlerhood (1978), paving Williams' way for "Mork" and subsequent gems.

Thanks to YouTube, millions get to enjoy the lunacy (pardon the use of the word in this context) of the stars and skits. Here is one of my favorites, the Funeral sketch. Poking fun at our contemporary sterilization of mourning, Robin teaches Carol how to "keen":