Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Weakness of Christ

My wife and I took our family to mass on Christmas morning, and the opening prayer (the same as for Evening Prayer II on Christmas Day) made me think.
Lord God,
we praise you for creating man,
and still more for restoring him in Christ.
Your Son shared our weakness:
may we share his glory,
for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

That phrase "your Son shared our weakness" struck something within me. I know that Jesus was fully human, like us in all things but sin. But when I think of our greatest weakness, it is a result of original sin. We struggle with concupiscence, the disordered appetites that produce in us an inclination to sin. Surely, I thought, Christ didn't have any disordered appetites. I've wondered before about whether Mary, immaculately conceived, was born with concupiscence. Baptism obviously does not remove the effects of original sin, but the sinlessness of Jesus and Mary were, it seems, quite different from baptism. Mary was, for instance, able to remain a virgin even in giving birth to Jesus.

In thinking about this over the last week, I've concluded that, in order to undo the sin of Adam and redeem mankind, he would have to assume our fallen nature. That means that his human nature would have had all of the effects of Adam's original sin. Christ however, was able to align his fallen human nature and his human will with his divine will. And that gives some hope to the rest of us that, with God's grace, we too can overcome our weakness, and share in His glory.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An American Gorbachev?

Fr. Schnippel noted yesterday that a Russian "academic" is predicting the collapse and division of the United States in 2010. It seems that the story is also being carried by the Wall Street Journal. Also yesterday, Jonah Goldberg at The Corner noted an opinion column at the Boston Globe in which James Carroll dreams of Obama following the lead of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Didn't Gorbachev oversee the breakup of the Soviet Union? Are these two items related?

Note: I agree with Jonah that drawing a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the USSR is despicable.

A Symptom of My Disease

The liturgical celebrations of the Church are (or are supposed to be!) filled with signs that point to supernatural realities. There is a piece at Catholic Exchange today that discusses the significance of the vestments worn by priests and deacons when they celebrate the mass. I started to read it this morning before work, but I stopped less than halfway through. Why? Because the thought came to me that I was only setting myself up for more disappointment. If I know what the vestments could be teaching us, I'll only be disappointed when I note how the vestments at the masses I attend fall short.

I want to know more, but I'm afraid that I'll be happier in ignorance.

A Gift And A Curse

Our family enjoys watching the television show Monk. Even little Erin gets excited when we all sit down to watch the latest Monk disk from Netflix. For those who might not be familiar with the show, the premise is that Adrian Monk is a former detective who is now a consultant for the police department. The catch is that he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Everything has to be arranged just so, and his fear of everything makes him practically helpless without his assistant. However, his attention to details that others overlook make him brilliant at solving crimes. In several episodes during the first six seasons of the show, people have marveled to him that he has a real gift, to which he replies, "and a curse . . . mostly a curse."

I can't help but wonder whether I know too much for my own good, or not enough, particularly with respect to the liturgy. I took a class on liturgy and prayer a few years ago, and it was surprisingly good. If nothing else, it helped to elevate my appreciation for the Church calendar and the Litury of the Hours. In some respects, I've stepped back from where I was a few years ago. During my Navy years I was stationed in northern Virginia, and the parish that we attended did not use extraordinary ministers of communion at all. At Sunday masses the "extra" priests and deacons would troop in from the sacristy at communion time to aid in distribution and then disappear after communion. When we would come home to our home parish during visits, my wife and I would be scandalized by the parade of lay distributors up to the sanctuary during the Lamb of God (or Agnus Dei if we were lucky). The EM parade is one of the things that I've come to accept over the years.

I have learned enough about liturgy, especially the mass, to fall in love with it. When I participate in the liturgy, I am praying with the entire Church, with the mind of the Church. That's what I love about the Liturgy of the Hours--it's not just my prayer, it's our prayer. And the mass is the source and summit of the whole Christian life. All of the other sacraments are oriented toward the Eucharist. Our life between masses is both nourished by and preparation for the mass. When we worship at mass, the sacrifice of Calvary is made present to us, and we are able to unite ourselves to the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God. We are simultaneously in the Upper Room, at the foot of the cross, and outside the empty tomb. We are united with the entire Church in offering worship to God the Father. I can still remember attending a mass on All Saints Day and wondering in awe at the thought of being surrounded by the cloud of witnesses that is the Church Triumphant in heaven. It has been a great gift.

And then I see others who don't see what I see in the liturgy. There is a casualness surrounding the celebration of the sacred rites that is disturbing. To one who loves the liturgy and knows how it should be or could be celebrated, every omission or deviation from the rubrics becomes a wound to the heart that saddens and depresses the spirit that wants to soar with the angels. Other people, who I know are good and faithful Catholics, are able to offer their worship through what causes me to stagger and stumble in emotional and spiritual pain. A part of me envies them. In a way, my love has become a curse.

I certainly don't want to strain at gnats. I'm not looking for all the bells and whistles of the extraordinary form or the traditional Latin mass. I happen to think that the vernacular is a good thing, even if the current English translation is less than perfect. I can put up with a homily that isn't inspired. I just want the rites to be performed the way the Church, with all of her authority, has approved. But how much should I be willing to compromise? Should I accept what I shouldn't have to accept, just to get along?

I am in love, and I want to stay in love.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Augustine’s Confessions, 10.27.38

by Timothy Murphy
Copyright (c) 2008 First Things (October 2008).

Wrongly thinking that beauty lay without,
blindly I cast about.
How late did I begin
to realize your beauty lay within.
To one bereft of sight
you said Let there be light.
Thus to my deafened ear
you called, you cried! hoping that I might hear.
I thirsted, hungered, yearned.
You touched me, and I burned.
How late I came to you,
to beauty ever ancient, ever new.
How late I came to you.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Babe in Bethlehem

I have a sister in the Dayton area who, for the last several years, around Thanksgiving, has given me a copy of At Home with the Word for the coming year. It's nice to have all of the readings for Sundays and holy days collected in one place, and occasionally I'll read something in the commentary that sparks a thought. And so it was today, on the Feast of the Holy Family, that I read this:

Imagine yourself holding Mary's infant. Look at his tiny hands, his mouth, his sleeping face.

For some reason, when I usually imagine the scene at Bethlehem, the baby Jesus is not a newborn, but a child of several months. Perhaps it's the effect of all those nativity scenes where the statue of the infant is holding out his arms and smiling.

Newborns don't do that. Newborns are tiny and helpless, totally dependent upon others to care for them. It staggers the mind to think that God the Son, in becoming incarnate, made himself totally helpless and dependent upon Mary and Joseph. Perhaps that is why he was born in such humble and inconspicuous circumstances, with the glorious news announced not to the learned or to the masses, but to the shepherds in the fields with their flocks.

Of course, Mary and Joseph did care for the child. Joseph might have needed a little prompting from the angels to take Mary as his wife and to lead the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. But upon receiving the messages from the angels, he promptly acted in faith upon what had been revealed to him.

On this Feast of the Holy Family, let us all emulate Mary and Joseph in responding to God's revelation. Mary and Joseph, pray for us. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Continues

Christmas is over now . . . or is it? On the day after Christmas, I turned on the radio to a station that had been playing nothing but Christmas music since Thanksgiving. There were no more carols. With temperatures near 65° F today, I expect that many will use this brief respite from Winter to remove their outdoor decorations. The struggle at our home on the day after Christmas is to get all the gifts put away—not to abolish all signs of the holiday (the decorations stay up!), but rather to allow us to walk through the house without stepping on things not meant to be stepped on and to allow the baby to play on the floor without us having to constantly check whether she’s sticking tiny little toy pieces in her mouth. The clutter raises our stress level more than anything!

And yet, thankfully, there are signs that the holiday continues. The kids will still be home from school next week. The week between Christmas and New Years Day (The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, if you prefer) is always just a little more relaxed, and another extended weekend adds to the holiday feel. Breakfast will include waffles on the new waffle iron, and the kids (especially nine year-old Catherine) will bombard us with steady requests to play family games, half of which unfortunately end in sibling squabbles which leave me grinding my teeth or worse.

And there are hopeful signs outside of our own home. Although the all-Christmas station has returned to their usual fare, I was still able to catch some carols on the country music station out of Dayton. When my daughter Erin was born on January 5th six years ago, I remember seeing a Nativity scene on display at the nurses’ station and giving thanks that someone there understood the season. [UPDATE: There goes my memory again. It seems that Erin was born on the 10th of January rather than the 5th, which means that the Nativity scene at the nurses' station was still up a few days after Epiphany.]

Christmas continues. May the joy of the season when angels proclaimed peace on earth and goodwill to men find a home in our hearts.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Joseph at Bethlehem

If I were Joseph, I think that I would have felt more than a little inadequate.

God, having chosen to bless Mary with the singular privilege of bearing the Messiah, appointed Joseph their guardian, and with the birth of the young Messiah imminent, Joseph couldn't even find them a decent place to stay. Yes, it was the Romans' fault for making everybody return to the town of their fathers to register for the census, but surely a more industrious man could have made arrangements for his pregnant young wife to sleep in some comfort and security.

But Joseph, arriving in Bethlehem with Mary, was turned away from the inn. At least he was able to swing permission for them to sleep in the stable with the animals. For a person with great faith, such as Joseph was, he must have been thankful for that. I think that I would have been discouraged. I would have been tempted to wonder what God could have been thinking. The child is about to be born in a stable! He deserves so much more! He deserves more than I (Joseph) can give him.

In retrospect, we all know that God had his reasons. The circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ serve to highlight the humility of the incarnate deity. The trappings of wealth and power are not significant to God. In fact, they often get in the way.

On this blessed night, I pray that God will grant me the graces that I need to surrender to his will. I look to Joseph as a model of what a father should be, and I pray for his intercession. St. Joseph, pray for us.

No Room in the Inn

From Fulton J. Sheen:

Mary is now with child, awaiting birth, and Joseph is full of expectancy as he enters the city of his own family. He searched for a place for the birth of him to whom heaven and earth belonged. Could it be that the Creator would not find room in his own creation?

Certainly, thought Joseph, there would be room in the village inn. There was room for the rich; there was room for those who were clothed in soft garments. . . . But when finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last word of time, the saddest lines of all will be: There was no room in the inn.” No room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there’s no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is a place for outcasts, the ignored and the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born in an inn; a stable would certainly be the last place in the world where one would look for him. The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God-Made-Man is invited to enter into his own world through a back door.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Common Greeting?

Earlier this week, the gospels for mass recounted the Annunciation of Mary, where the Angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth. The readings recalled to my mind an occasion a couple of years ago, when I was taking a class offered by the Archdiocese and taught by a priest. One of the other students in the class, a convert, asked the instructor a question about the greeting of the angel to Mary. He responded that it was just a common greeting for the time, and had no special meaning!

I just shook my head and bit my tongue. I was picking my battles carefully in these classes, and I didn’t want to spend my ammo fighting over secondary territory (not that Mary’s singular grace is secondary; rather, the question that was asked was an aside and not directly relevant to the primary topic covered by the class).

I followed up with the other student after class. “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you,” is anything but a standard greeting, especially given Mary’s reaction: “She was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The NAB translation of “full of grace” is “favored one.” I understand that neither phrase fully captures the meaning of the Greek term (which I won’t attempt to spell). Mary certainly didn’t seem to think that it was just a common greeting. Neither did the fathers of the Church. Neither does the Church (capital “C”) today. But that it how it was stated by a priest placed in a position of authority (i.e., instructing a diocese-sponsored class) by my local church.

We have no choice but to look to our local churches for sacraments and liturgy. Occasions such as the one just recounted make it tempting to look elsewhere for teaching. I hate that I have to apply a filter of orthodoxy to everything that comes to me from a source that should be reliable, especially since I know that I am far from infallible. I can only imagine that priests and catechists must be frustrated to know that anything they say might be compared against a more authoritative Church document. As a sometimes catechist, however, I want to present the Truth, and if I say something that is not in agreement with Church teaching, I hope and pray that somebody will correct me.

We must remember in our prayers those who pass the faith on to others, that the Holy Spirit will place words of truth in their mouths and grant them the humility to accept correction.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New Year's Day, 1998

On the evening of New Year’s Day, 1998, I was driving my family to our new home from my in-laws house. We had just moved back to the area from Virginia, and we had to drive about 20 miles to get home.

As I drove west along the state route, we hit a patch of ice. Maybe a gust of wind caught the van, but for whatever reason, the front of our Aerostar van pulled left and would not respond to steering. I remember thinking, as we slid down the road sideways, that if we were to suddenly hit dry pavement, we would probably flip and roll.

We continued to spin and ended up in a field. The van was still upright, and everyone was OK. The road was empty when we spun across the eastbound lane and off the south side of the road. We were able to drive out of the field, back onto the road, and continue on to our home. There was no apparent damage, other than to our nerves.

The next day, we drove back along the same state route, trying to identify where we had gone off the road. We couldn’t tell, and for much of that stretch of road there was either a ditch or a fence along the south side. We could say that we dodged a bullet, or we could say that our guardian angels were working overtime that night. Or we could say that God was trying to send us a wake-up call.

We cannot know in this life why some are spared and some are not. All that we can do is accept the situation for what it is and try to learn from it. I believe that God communicates with us through the events of our lives. If we can recognize the moments of actual grace for what they are, then we can learn something about where God is leading us, and what his plan for us might be. Our faith helps us to contextualize the mysteries of life.

God allows bad things to happen so that a greater good can come from it. We have to trust him, even when we do not and cannot understand his reasons.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Every Death Is A Learning Experience

Sometimes two or more separate events come together to shed a ray of insight into an existence that is otherwise like looking through a clouded window.

Item 1: In Battlestar Galactica, when a Cylon dies, they are reborn on a resurrection ship, if one is within range. In an episode (I forget which one) a couple of years ago, one of the Cylons stated that every death is a learning experience.

Item 2: An accident on Tuesday claims the lives of three coworkers.

Item 3: At a Christmas party on Saturday, I was talking with one of my nephews about things that his dad would get really upset about if he ever caught him doing. One of my wife’s uncles commented that it meant his dad had probably done those things and learned his lessons from them, to which I commented that it is always better to learn from the mistakes of others than to make those same mistakes yourself.

Suddenly, a silver thread ties the three together. Every death is a learning experience, but it isn’t our death from which we learn. Every person we know that dies leaves something behind. There is always a lesson to be learned, either in how that person lived his life and affected those around him, or in how I interacted with that person. Every death can tell me something about how I should live, and I’m much better off if I learn those lessons from others before I have to face it personally.

Be Watchful! Be Alert!

Earlier this week, I arrived at work to learn that three of my coworkers had died in an automobile accident, and two others were in the hospital. The van they were traveling in left the road in icy conditions, turned on its side, slid across the median, and was hit by a semi trailer traveling in the opposite direction. Along with everyone else in the office, I was filled with shock.

We are told throughout Advent that the coming or our Lord is immanent. In the first week of Advent, we were told by Christ himself, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. . . What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’ (Mark 13:33-37)” The message seems obvious; we must always be ready to face our judgment.

The three men who died illustrated that point perfectly. One was a 61 year old grandfather nearing the end of his career and looking forward to retirement. One was a 45 year old man in the middle of his career. The third was a young man of 23 years, just out of college and beginning his career. None of the three expected their life to end on Tuesday. I can only pray that when death came, they were ready.

And, I can only pray that I will be ready, should my death come unannounced. I know that there are things I can do to prepare myself. In modern parlance, I must keep my fundamental option properly directed toward God. Love is central to that – love of God and love of neighbor.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Prayer Before Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

Lord God,

I offer this Divine Office to you, together with the adoration and praise of the angels and saints in heaven, as well as that of all the priests of your Church and all other consecrated souls. I present to you, holy Father, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, this chorus of prayer, made Holy in the Heart of Jesus and made one with His most holy prayer. May all the words of this prayer be acts of pure love, adoration, thanksgiving, satisfaction, trust, and surrender to your holy Will. Let this prayer be for my weak self a spiritual communion, an act of humility, and of perfect self-denial; and may it be a sacrifice of praise and glory to you, O Blessed Trinity.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Kiss a Wookie!

This a cappella Star Wars tribute to John Williams has been on my brain for days now.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Confession - the Video

I saw this over at Catholic Exchange. Narrated by Dr. Ray Guarendi, it goes well with two earlier posts from this week. There's still one more parish reconciliation service this week in our area - tonight at St. Michael.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Memento Mori Prayer Request

I arrived at work this morning to learn that three of my coworkers were killed and two were injured when their van slid off the road in the icy conditions and into the path of an oncoming semi trailer. Please keep them and their families in your prayers.

Not Quite Like Elizabeth

When I saw the headline last week about a 70 year-old woman giving birth, my first impulse was to send a quick email to a friend with 11 children whose mid-forties wife is expecting number 12. Looks like she could have another 25 years of fertility, I was going to say.

But I paused to read the story and found that the conception was not exactly natural. Rather, it took place through invitro fertilization. I feel for those who have not been blessed with children, but I'm certain that it didn't happen this way with Sara, Hannah, or Elizabeth.

I know that much of the world, even those who profess to be Catholics, do not accept the Church's moral position on life issues such as invitro fertilization, contraception, and abortion. I pray that hearts will be softened to see that children are not a "right"; that sex, marriage, and parenthood are intimately connected; and that every human life has inherent dignity.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Confession Line

Amy and I decided to go to confession before mass at Maria Stein Center on Saturday. Mass is at 11:30, and the celebrating priest normally starts hearing confessions at 11:00. The last time we went, there were only two people in line at 11:00, so we figured that if we got there by 10:55, we should be fine.

When we arrived, we found the line for confessions was pouring out of the waiting room and into the hallway. Amy asked me if I wanted to get in line, and I said no, there are too many penitents to get through before mass. So we took are seat and joined in saying the rosary before mass. At about 11:15, Amy looked back and said to me, "The line's about half down, do you want to go get in line?" I glanced back and saw that the line now ended at the doorway to the waiting room. I shook my head no; there were still too many to get through before mass.

Now that I think about, she seemed awfully anxious to get me into that confessional line. I wonder why?

About 11:25, a bunch of people started taking seats in the chapel. "Must be all the people who didn't get through line," I thought to myself. Mass started, as normal, at 11:30. After mass, the celebrant said that, since he was retired and didn't have anywhere that he needed to be, he would hear the confessions of those who didn't get to go before mass. "I think there were five," he added.

By the time Amy and I got in line, there were at least 15 of us. I know that sin doesn't just happen before or during Advent and Lent, but I am grateful that at least people become more aware of their need to reconcile with God during these seasons of preparation.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ten Reasons for Confession

With all the parish penance services going on this week, I thought it would be a good time to list my ten reasons to go to confession.
  1. It's God's plan. Christ explicitly gave his apostles authority not only to forgive sins, but to retain them. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23)." So if this is the way that God set it up, who are we to try something different?
  2. Tradition! We've been doing it this way for how many hundreds of years? Are we really so arrogant as to think that we've got a better way?
  3. Assurance. When you go to confession, you hear the words "I absolve you" coming from the priest, acting in the person of Christ. I know that my sins are forgiven (as long as I haven't intentionally withheld anything).
  4. The New Shoes Effect. Do you remember when you were a kid, and you got a new pair of shoes? Not only did it seem like I could run faster and jump higher, I also wanted to keep those shoes scuff-free for as long as I could. While I wouldn't have thought twice about walking through mud with my old shoes, I wanted to keep the new shoes clean. If you don't like the shoes analogy, you can substitute carpet. After you get the carpet cleaned, you don't let the kids eat or drink in the family room, at least for a while.
  5. It's not too easy. If forgiveness comes too easily, there's no incentive to change the behavior. Confession takes a little effort (but not too much).
  6. It's an antidote for pride. Going to confession takes humility. You usually stand in line to accuse yourself before God. And for those of us who seem to confess the same sins, it takes extra humility to admit that we keep falling into the same traps.
  7. It's an opportunity for Spiritual Direction. You confess your sins and the circumstances and, if the priest isn't in too much of a hurry, he'll take some time to counsel you on how you might avoid those sins in the future.
  8. Penance. As strange as it may sound, being required to do something in atonement for your transgressions makes the whole experience more meaningful. Most penances are really quite minor (e.g., three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys), but sometimes the penance is custom fit to the sins committed.
  9. Sacramental Grace. Confession is a sacrament. A sacrament is a sign instituted by Christ to confer grace. Every sacrament gives us grace, a share in the divine life. Therefore, confession draws us into a closer relationship with God.
  10. Requires an Examination of Conscience. Every time we go to confession, we examine our conscience. We look back at how we've lived our life since our last confession, and we pick out the ways in which we've failed to live according to our calling as followers of Christ. Only by examining how and why we are falling short of the ideal can we hope to get any closer to the ideal.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Population of Hell

I learned on Friday that Avery Cardinal Dulles had died. I knew that his health was failing, but I was still a little surprised by the news. The Catholic Church in America has lost an exemplary theologian. Dulles was named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. I am not aware of any other current cardinal who was not a bishop.

I had been thinking of Dulles lately because of an article, The Population of Hell, that he wrote for the May 2003 issue of First Things. At our Saturday morning discussion a few weeks ago, we were discussing the parable of the sheep and the goats. One man among us confessed that he had a hard time believing that a merciful god would condemn any soul to an eternity of torment in hell. The only souls in hell would be those who choose to go to there. The obvious question would be how that choice is made: is it made during one’s lifetime in whether or not to love one’s neighbors, or is it an explicit choice made at the moment of, or even after the moment of, death? I happen to believe that you get to make the choice before death, and once you die, the choice has already been made.

In his essay, Dulles noted that there are two ultimate possibilities after death: everlasting happiness with God or everlasting torment without God. He then lays out the biblical evidence, noting the Gospel passages where Christ refers to hell, even suggesting that Judas is in hell, and the passages from St. Paul that indicate a division between those who are saved and those who are perishing. He notes that God’s desire is clearly for universal salvation, but that He will not override man’s free will.

Dulles then recounts how the continuous teaching of the Catholic Church supports the division of humanity into the saved and the damned. The Church continues to teach that everyone who dies in a state of mortal sin goes to hell. Relative numbers between the saved and the damned, however, are not treated in any Church documents. Many saints and doctors of the Church were convinced that most of the human race is lost.

There is a break with tradition in the middle of the twentieth century. Jacques Maritain, in a conjectural essay published after his death, contemplated that possibility that the damned escape the punishments of hell through the prayers of the saints and spend eternity not in hell or heaven, but in limbo. Karl Rahner argued that universal salvation was possible, if the Gospel passages in which Jesus refers to hell are read as admonitory (what could happen) rather than predictive (what will happen). Hans Urs von Balthazar argued that Christians have the right and the duty to hope for the salvation of all.

The traditional interpretation by the Church has been that explicit faith, reception of the sacraments (especially baptism), and obedience to the Church are the ordinary means through which men are saved. Vatican II softened the stance by noting that even those who are ignorant of Christ are given sufficient grace to make salvation possible, while still asserting that any who reject the Church, knowing that it is the ordinary means of salvation, cannot be saved. Dulles notes, “If we accept these teachings, we will find it unlikely that everyone fulfills the conditions for salvation.”

Dulles summarizes:
Today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved. . . The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics. . . .

All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. We would rejoice in every sign that others were among the lost, since our own chances of election would thereby be increased. Such a competitive spirit would hardly be compatible with the gospel. . . .

His conclusion seems to be that it's acceptably orthodox to hope for the salvation of all. This is after all, the will of God. However, it is also clear that we cannot accept universal salvation as a revealed doctrine. To the contrary, the evidence appears to support the contrary argument. We can hope that hell is empty, but it most likely is well populated.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What Might Have Been - WWII

I enjoy reading history books and historic novels, especially those dealing with military history. I recently finished reading The Steel Wave, by Jeff Shaara. It's the second in a trilogy about the Second World War. I had read the first book, The Rising Tide, this past summer.

I realize that the books are novels; however, they are carefully researched and are based on actual people and events. The fictional parts are largely in the conversations and thoughts of characters like Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Erwin Rommel. It's an excellent series for anybody who enjoys reading about World War II.

The thought has occurred to me lately that the whole course of the war in Europe hinged on one man: Hitler. More to the point, it seems to me now that history could have been a whole lot worse if Hitler had been just a little less deranged. Without a doubt, Hitler's aggressiveness caused the war. But what if, while remaining as evil as he was, he was a little more patient, or willing to exercise a little more military discipline. What if he had allowed his generals to capture the British army at Dunkirk? What if he had waited just one year before turning his attention east to the Soviet Union, taking the time to deal with Churchill's England and consolidating his control of France? What if he had declined to declare war on the United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?

The Allied forces defeated the German war machine, but could we have done it if Hitler hadn't been completely mad? It seems strange to say it, but we could be lucky that Hitler was as insanely evil as he was. Had he been less so, the Third Reich could have lasted longer and killed even more people than it did.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Roller Coaster

My eighth grade son's language arts class (back in the day, we called it English) has been reading The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The back jacket for the book gives this description:

Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community.

When Jonas turns twelve, he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now it's time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

I tried talking to my son about the book, and what kind of class discussions they have. It seems that in the book, nobody has any feelings. Only certain women are selected to have babies, and then only one or two. There are no thirds. If a woman has twins one of the babies is killed. That got my wife's attention. The people in the book have basically turned their whole life over to central planning. There is no sadness, but there is also no joy.

This sounded to me an awful lot like the premise of a B science fiction movie that I had once watched. All that I could remember about the movie was that Boromir (okay, it was actor Sean Bean, who will always be Boromir to me) died in an early scene. I went to and found that the movie I was remembering was Equilibrium. The plot summary from imdb:

In a futuristic world, a strict regime has eliminated war by suppressing emotions: books, art and music are strictly forbidden and feeling is a crime punishable by death. Cleric John Preston (Bale) is a top ranking government agent responsible for destroying those who resist the rules. When he misses a dose of Prozium, a mind-altering drug that hinders emotion, Preston, who has been trained to enforce the strict laws of the new regime, suddenly becomes the only person capable of overthrowing it.

I'll bet you can guess what the moral of both stories ends up being. It's a sentiment that I think was best summed up in Parenthood:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Choppin' Broccoli

Jamie's got a broccoli recipe posted, so. . .

On John the Baptist

Every Saturday morning, I meet with a group of men at a friend’s house. Every other Saturday, we reflect upon the gospel for the following Sunday. Last week, we discussed Mark 1:1-8. This coming week, we will hear more about John the Baptist, so I thought I would share some of the points from our discussion (from my sometimes faulty memory).

The people obviously saw something in John. The crowds went out to hear him. Even the priests and Levites went out to him, asking if he was Elijah, the Christ, or the Prophet. Malachi 4:5 states, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” In Deuteronomy 18, a prophet (the Prophet) like Moses is promised. John is a bridge between the Old Testament and the New. The God of the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same God who took on a human nature, walked among us, suffered, died, and rose, and established His Church.

What did John expect the messiah to be? His answer when questioned about his own identity was to invoke Isaiah 40. Isaiah should provide the context for John’s understanding of the messiah. Isaiah is rich in shepherd imagery and, of course, the Song of the Suffering Servant. Our salvation is from Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. While we must participate in politics, we must recognize that no political program can replace the personal encounter with Christ that leads to eternal life.

John’s message is not “Rejoice! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Rather, John preached repentance and baptism. His specific message to people seemed to be simply to do what is right and just for your state in life. It is almost as if everyone is corrupt and on the take. For us, the call to repentance requires a daily turning away from self and toward God. In our work and in our almsgiving, we must go beyond what is legally required to what is right and just.

John was dressed in camel hair with a leather girdle, and he ate locusts and wild honey. That must be significant. In 2 Kings 1:8, it is noted that the prophet Elijah wore haircloth and a leather girdle. Zechariah 13:4 notes that any future prophet will wear a hairy mantle. Leviticus 11:22 notes that locusts and grasshoppers are considered “clean” and may be eaten without violating the dietary laws. Deuteronomy 32:13 and 1 Samuel 14:25-27 both refer to eating wild honey. So the clothing is that of a prophet (specifically Elijah) and the food is what one would be permitted to eat if living off the land in the wilderness. In other words, John trusted God entirely for his sustenance. While it might not be practical for us to dress in coarse wool or eat from whatever the land offers us, we can live simply, trusting in God’s providence.

John was the first to recognize the Christ, when he leaped for joy within the womb of his mother Elizabeth as Mary approached following the Annunciation. Once Jesus begins his public ministry, John points others to him. John acknowledges that he must increase and I must decrease. He is much like Mary, who always points us to her Son. In our efforts to evangelize others, we must always ensure that we do not become the focus of attention. Like John and Mary, we always want to point others to Him.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting to Know You

As I mentioned in a previous post, our Knights of Columbus council recently held its annual Charities Banquet. One of the highlights of the banquet is the recognition of various outstanding individuals and families.

This year, the biographies of those being recognized were very impressive, and two conflicting thoughts crossed my mind as the lists of accomplishments for the recipients were being read.

The first thought was that I was unaware of how great a contribution so many of those around me have made in their community and their church. None of us is an island, and in a life well-lived, we are bound to accumulate accomplishments. It is in the small acts of love, which often go unnoticed, that we live out our vocations as Christians. The world is a better place for what these people have done.

In contrast, my second thought was much less charitable, and reflects badly upon me. That thought was along the lines of “I know X. The person just described sounds like a wonderful, involved, active person. X is an OK person, but X is not all THAT.”

This, I believe, is an instance in which the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is given some basis. There have been times in the past when my dear wife has expressed an admiration for another couple and a desire to get to know them better. It is a painful truth that all too often, getting to know another couple better leads to a loss of admiration as we discover a number of not-so-admirable traits (as I am sure that they discover ours as well). It has led me on at least one occasion to say, “No, I’d rather keep my high opinion of them.”

This, it occurs to me, is not very Christian, and I need to struggle against this attitude. To know a person better should increase the ability to love that person. To acknowledge that one has failings does not diminish the greatness of one’s accomplishments. If anything, it magnifies them. Our good works are the result of God’s grace at work through us.

For my part, the only credit that I deserve for any good thing that I’ve done, is that I’ve gotten out of the way and allowed God’s work to proceed.

To all those recognized by our council this year I say congratulations and thank you. Thank you for allowing yourself to be used by the almighty. Thank you for doing the work that you’ve done without recognition. Yours is a life well lived.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

We Are The Catholic Church

Catholics Come Home is an apostolate reaching out to former Catholics, non-practicing Catholics, and non-Catholics. They say that their mission is to create "effective and compassionate media messages and broadcasts them nationally and internationally, in order to inspire, educate and evangelize inactive Catholics and others, and invite them to live a deeper faith in Jesus Christ, in accord with the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church." It sounds like a good cause, and I look forward to seeing some of their advertisements on national media.

This is one of their videos, titled "Epic." At the website, documentation is available for every one of the claims made in the commercial.

(H/T Rich Leonardi)

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Debt to the K of C

I will always be indebted to the Knights of Columbus for their role in bringing me to an adult understanding of and acceptance of my Catholic faith.

In 1994, I was an Ensign in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Northern Virginia. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and I knew next to nothing about what it meant to be Catholic. The priests that we were encountering in the Arlington diocese were challenging us to live out our Catholic faith, but I didn’t have any real idea what that meant.

Earlier attempts to grow in knowledge, through a Renew group in college and through a catechism purchased at a Christian bookstore in the mall, had proven fruitless. Neither offered the kind of explanation and defense of what the Catholic Church taught that I was looking for. I wanted to know why I should be Catholic. I wanted to know what I was saying about myself when I identified myself as Catholic.

And so it happened one morning in 1994 (this was before the Catechism of the Catholic Church was available in English), that I was sitting in my dining room reading the Sunday edition of the Washington Post. While flipping through the Parade magazine insert, I came across an advertisement promoting a correspondence course on the teachings of the Catholic Church. All that I had to do was clip the coupon, fill in the information, and send it in to the Catholic Information Service, a program of the Knights of Columbus. There was no charge for the course. I would receive the first two lessons, and I didn’t have to worry about anybody showing up at my door or calling me on the phone. It seemed ideal.

When I received the first two lessons, I underlined and highlighted the booklets. I took the quizzes and sent them in. A short time later, I received the quizzes back, along with an answer key and the next two lessons. There were ten lessons total, and I found, as I studied, that it all fit together. The teachings of the Catholic Church formed a coherent philosophy that gave meaning to life. Because of that correspondence course, I knew what I was saying when I declared myself to be Catholic, and I agreed with it.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Knights for that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Honoring Our Troops

My Knights of Columbus council had its annual charities banquet this afternoon. As the meal was nearing completion, we received words that a busload of returning soldiers was coming through town. Nearly the whole hall filed out and lined the street as the bus, with police, sheriff, and fire department escort drove north through town. All along the state route, people had come out, many with their American flags, to cheer for and thank the returning troops.

It was touching to see the public response for these men and women who had placed themselves in harm's way in service to their country. Ultimately, they did it to protect the way of life -- the rights and liberties -- that we enjoy here in west central Ohio. There are many of us who believe that defending liberty half a world away is directly related to the security of liberty here at home. If you're free to speak your mind, read what you like, and worship according to your conscience, thank a member of the military!

Prayer for Departing Troops

All-powerful and ever-living God,

when Abraham left his native land

and departed from his people

you kept him safe through

all his journeys.

Protect these soldiers.

Be their constant companion and

their strength in battle,

their refuge in every adversity.

Guide them, O Lord, that they may

return home in safety.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

- USCCB Committee on the Liturgy

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Adventures in Home Plumbing

I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer. On those occasions in the past when I’ve tried, I’ve been nearly as likely to make things worse than to make them better. Even when it does work out, I usually end up doing things at least three times before I get it right.

So I didn’t exactly jump at the chance to buy a new dishwasher when ours started dying. We thought that it was dead about two months ago, but it appears to have just been the death of the heating coils. As long as we didn’t use the heated start or heated dry options, the washer would still work. Over the last two weeks, though, our dishes just haven’t been getting clean.

My dear wife’s complaining finally broke through my filter, and we went out earlier this week (Tuesday) to buy a new dishwasher. We resisted the salesman’s efforts to upgrade us to a model with features that we neither needed nor wanted and turned down the stainless steel flexible hose. In spite of all of the stories about frozen credit markets, we applied for and were given in-store credit for 12 months same-as-cash and were able to take a model home the same day.

I resisted installation on Wednesday and Thursday, but by Friday, I knew that I would have to succumb so that my wife, the mother of my children and so much more, could have clean dishes for St. Nick’s day.

I said a prayer to St. Joseph, figuring that as a carpenter, he should have patronage over all kinds of home repairs, but decided to look up the patron saint of plumbers as well. I never would have guessed St. Vincent Ferrer! So, I said a quick prayer to St. Vincent for guidance and intercession, and got my tools to begin removing the old dishwasher.

I was pleased to find that the old dishwasher’s electric leads were terminated in a plug, so I didn’t have to try to figure out which circuit breaker the dishwasher was on, and the only real mistake that I made was in forgetting to turn off the water – there was only a little leakage involved.

The old dishwasher came out, the new dishwasher went in, and I didn’t appear to have made any big mistakes. It took me about three hours, and the worst part was that I couldn’t find a working flashlight anywhere in the house. I tried the new dishwasher on rinse, and everything seemed to work right. Prayers of thanksgiving went out to God and to Sts. Vincent and Joseph.

When we woke this morning, however, I was filled with dread when my wife went to the sink and found a total lack of water. No hot, no cold. The only line I had done anything at all to the previous night was the hot water line from the water heater, the same one that fed the dishwasher. More prayer, this time pleading, to St. Vincent!

I checked the lines in the basement, and couldn’t find anything. I told my wife, “Maybe it’s the village. I’ll ask Steve when I see him whether he has any water pressure.” That seemed reasonable, but just a few moments later, my wife informed me that the water to the toilet was running. I looked in the reservoir and, sure enough, if I pressed down on the float, the water started running. I checked the sink again, but there was still no water pressure.

Back down to the basement, wondering how I could have screwed this up. I actuated all the valves closed and back open. I fiddled with the water softener system, even though we don’t need it anymore since the village upgraded the water treatment (I don’t want to pay a plumber to remove it, and I’m afraid to try to do it myself). Back upstairs, but still no water pressure.

I finally admitted defeat. Thank you, St. Vincent, but it looked like I was going to have to call in someone who knew what they were doing.

Five minutes later, the water was working again. I don’t know how; I don’t know why. But I am grateful and ready to admit my utter dependence upon God for all things, including indoor plumbing.

A Good Time To Die

My wife and I typically attend the Saturday morning (11:30 am) mass at Maria Stein Center. Occasionally, we'll take advantage of the opportunity to go to confession before mass. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion, driving back home along the country roads, that this would be a good time to die, having just received absolution for my sins, followed by mass and communion.

It's a morbid thought, but that doesn't make it untrue.

Friday, December 5, 2008

My Memory

I am often frustrated by the gaps in my own memory. I fear that I would make a lousy witness in a court of law. It seems as though I can remember insignificant details of events that don't matter, but remember very little about things that should be, to borrow a phrase from John Kerry, seared into my memory. So, for instance, I remember absolutely nothing from my first communion. I don't remember my high school graduation. I don't remember my wedding ceremony (although I do remember a few small details from the reception).

My memory makes it difficult to do theological reflection, and relevant personal anecdotes are few and far between. I've chosen to conclude that it means that I live in the moment. The past is behind me, the future ahead. It doesn't matter what I did yesterday, what matters is what I do today and tomorrow.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Inflatable Churches

Another item that caught my eye in last week's Catholic Telegraph was an item about the Catholic diocese of Essen, Germany, buying an inflatable church, apparently in an effort to appeal to young people.

A German diocese plans to use inflatable churches to bring the Gospel to young people. "The aim is to do something eye-catching which could eventually be extended to all our towns," said Winfried Dolhausen, spokesman for the Essen Diocese. "These churches will be on a continual journey, meeting the young where they are rather than waiting for them to come to us."

It's probably no surprise that I don't like the idea.

A church should be a consecrated space, set aside for celebrating sacraments and prayer. The church should be a sign that points to a transcendent reality. It should elevate the soul toward God and provide a sense of permanence. An inflatable structure does none of these things.

If I were a youth, and somebody tried to evangelize to me with a blow-up church that looks like a holy moon-bounce, I might be curious to see what the thing looks like inside, but I woudn't be likely to take seriously anything said by those erecting the thing. It's more likely to become fodder for mocking jokes. A simple tent, I think, would be better.

Having something that looks like a caricature of a church should not be confused with evangelization. Evangelizing youth requires people willing to witness and talk to young people, without being overtly judgemental (which is not the same thing as accepting immoral behavior).

More than anything, I think that we should be willing to take our faith seriously enough not to invite mockery, which a cartoon church is certain to do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Don't Water It Down

A CNS news brief notes the comments of a University of Maryland student to attendees at the National Symposium on Adolescent Catechesis:

Asked what advice she would give on teen faith formation, the University of Maryland student and member of Our Lady of the Fields Parish in Millersville told the 100 attendees there: "Don't water it down." The response drew audible gasps, and even applause, from the gathering of academics, educators, youth ministers, bishops, catechists and other leaders.

I love the way her comment "drew audible gasps." I admit that I don't know the best way to reach youth with the message of the gospel. But I do know that watering down the message to make it more appealing is counter-productive.

School Reading List

One morning this week, I noticed a paper that my seventh-grade daughter had brought home from school. All of the students were going to be required to read four books in the next six weeks, and the group of students who read the most books would be rewarded. There was a catch: all of the books had to be from the list. Naturally, I started looking over the list. I only recognized two of the books, and one of them alarmed me: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.

There was quite a bit of discussion about Pullman's books last year when a film version of The Golden Compass was released in theaters. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops withdrew an originally favorable review. The Golden Compass is the first book in a trilogy which has been described as The Chronicles of Narnia for atheists. Pullman himself has admitted that in writing the books, he was hoping to introduce children to atheism by denying the existence of God and portraying religion as evil.

I'm finding that the culture war is knocking on my very own door, here in the middle of nowhere! I cannot shirk my responsibilities as a father, and yet my own 13 year-old daughter refuses to understand why I have to insist on knowing what she and her siblings are reading. The battles that I have to fight for the souls of my children are the ones that hurt me the most.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Jesse's Branch

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. (Is 11:1-3)

We hear this messianic prophecy of Isaiah every year during Advent. We also hear it a lot when we are preparing candidates for Confirmation, since it is the primary source for our traditional list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

My Bible references to this passage from Isaiah in Mt 2:23 (And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. "He shall be called a Nazarene."). I understand that the Hebrew word for branch is nezzer, which is also the root word for Nazareth.

Jesse was the father of King David. The royal lineage of Israel, therefore, was a family tree with Jesse at the base. Isaiah, however, speaks of a stump, not a tree or a trunk. The tree has been cut down. The royal line was believed to be ended. But the geneology at the beginning of Matthew's gospel establishes that the line of David was intact, and that Jesus was of the royal line. Jesus was the shoot from the stump of Jesse, and he established a kingdom that was not of this world, a kingdom that would last forever.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

Messianic prophecies saw their fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of God. After his Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the messianic prophecies continue to be fulfilled through the followers of Jesus, his Church.

I am the vine, you are the branches. (Jn 15:5)
There is a sense in which each of us is the branch that grows from the root of Jesse's stump. When we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation, we receive the messianic gifts, and the mission of the messiah becomes our mission.

How do we do that in our own lives? As a husband and a father, I find that I struggle just to maintain peace within my own family. I suspect that the answer is in surrendering our will to God. Some of us He has great plans for, some of us will witness to him in mundane lives of simple obedience. I don't have to set out to do great things, I only have to be faithful in the small things. I have to say yes to Him one day at a time. If I love one person at a time, because that person is created in the image of God, then the rest will take care of itself.

The Music of Morning Prayer

Mother Theresa of Calcutta famously remarked that the fruit of silence is prayer. To that end, I have, on occasion in the past, tried to find quiet moments by doing things like turning off the radio in my car. I get uncomfortable in those moments. Rather than entering into conversation with God, it seems that after a minute or two, there's nothing happening at all: nothing in and nothing out.

I've also been on a silent retreat and found the experience to be very productive, spiritually speaking. At the retreat, I would return to my room after every meditation and write my reflections out. I found that in the writing, I was able to enter into the dialogue with God that was eluding me otherwise. It was after I shared this experience that someone suggested I start writing a blog. Whether that was a good idea or not remains to be seen.

Where I'm going with all this is that I've been saying Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours every morning upon rising. After saying the Invitatory, a hymn is sung. If I don't know the tune, I play it out on the piano (this is typically before any of the kids are awake). The rest of Morning Prayer follows. I've mentioned before in this blog that I really like breakfast, and for a long time, I would start preparing my breakfast in-between the psalms and canticles and readings, so that my Morning Prayer was all broken up. For the last two weeks, I've been saying the entire Morning Prayer before starting any of my breakfast, and I've been a little surprised by the result.

After I finish the prayer and begin preparing for my day, the hymn continues to play in my mind. The music in my brain continues the prayer and makes me reluctant to turn on the radio or television. The silence that previously caused me such discomfort is now a source of comfort.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cruisin' Deacons

I was a bit taken aback when I read the item in the Local Briefs section of The Catholic Telegraph. The headline, "Local deacons attend national conference," caught my attention. What surprised me was that the conference wast held on board the Norwegian Cruise Line's "Pride of America," as it toured the Hawaiian Islands.

I admit that I'd like to go on a cruise sometime, and if I ever do, I'd like to be able to attend some conferences on-board ala a Catholic Answers cruise or a National Review cruise. Those cruises, however, are typically money-making cruises for the host organization. Those attending know it, and they know that they are taking a vacation (hopefully well-earned).

But when it comes to a national conference of ordained clerics, I expect some minimum level of asceticism. The point should be to get away from the excesses of the material world to concentrate on something higher. Somehow, hosting a discussion on "Social Justice and Outreach" on board a cruise liner misses the point.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Mass is Sacred

Maybe I'm overly sensitive. Maybe everyone else is not sensitive enough. I hope that it's the latter. I continue to pray for discernment. [UPDATE: I've changed my mind. I'd rather be overly scrupulous than believe that everybody else is apathetic.]

I believe that sacraments and liturgy, and especially the mass, are sacred. Parlor tricks only cheapen what should be transcendent. It's a terrible thing to come home from Sunday mass in a bad mood, but here I am. It's a terrible thing to not want to go to mass out of fear of what the celebrant will introduce into the liturgy.

I'm at the point now where my first preference will be to attend mass at a neighboring parish. I've addressed my complaints to the pastor in the past, to no effect. More than anything else, I am filled with sadness this morning.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Be Vigilant . . . and Pray

As I noted in my last post, things are going really well right now. I'm trying to take as much advantage of it as I can, because I know that it won't last. Eventually, the consolations will dry up, and even if my overall situation is the same, I won't feel it.

Today's gospel seemed to be appropriate for me. I have to beware that my heart does not become drowsy in these good times. I also have to beware that, with the national economy continuing to deteriorate, I do not let the anxieties of daily life overtake me. Now, while my resolution is firm, I am trying to develop the habits that will carry me through the next period of darkness.

I know that the darkness will come. It always does. I take comfort in knowing that God's love for me does not depend upon my feeling his love. And so, my love for him is above any emotional response. The devotions that I begin today, while I do feel his love, are easy. They will draw me closer to him, even when I do not feel his presence.

Life Is Good

At least for me. At least for the last three weeks.

Three weeks ago, I transitioned into a new job at work (not a promotion, more of a lateral transfer within the Engineering Department). The job that I’m doing now is the job that I originally interviewed for two years ago. I’m very excited and happy about the change.

Coincidentally (or not), I’ve also been riding a spiritual high. My prayer life has been good, my temptation to sin less, I’ve been able to keep my resolutions, I received spiritual direction . . . I’ve even been exercising regularly.

Thanksgiving Day this year was near-perfect. I rose early, made myself a big breakfast (my favorite meal of the day), then I took my wife and kids along with me to mass. The church was packed, and none of my brood complained! Then off to the extended family party with 100+ packed into a large farmhouse. The introvert in me usually rules on these occasions, but this year I chatted and even initiated some conversations. After lunch, I played a little 5-on-5 football, then came home and played some Nintendo with my son, then Monopoly with three of the kids. And the day was book-ended with Morning and Evening Prayer.

The day was pretty near perfect, even if I woke the next morning with aches and pains from the football game. A little something to offer up, right?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Advertising Christ

My wife, in her life before marriage and motherhood, studied advertising. I remember having conversations with her about it when we were dating, and she would tell me that an advertisement could be memorable, but if you didn’t remember who the advertisement was promoting, it had fundamentally failed in its purpose.

Some fifteen or more years later, I was listening to the radio in an all-too-typical bad mood when an extremely annoying ad came on the air. This was the type of ad that got Billy Crystal’s character in trouble in the movie City Slickers. I turned to my wife and snarled, “That ad makes me not want to shop at Meijer!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have nothing against Meijer. I think their Thanksgiving ad in which a woman calls the doctor because of something her husband ate (and then runs through a long, long list) is quite clever. We don’t normally shop at Meijer because the nearest one (as far as I know) is in Troy, about 40 miles away.

My point is that name recognition in advertising can work both ways. An annoying ad or a bad experience can drive us away from an enterprise just as surely, or maybe even more so, than a good ad or a pleasant experience.

Are we aware that we are walking, talking advertisements for Christ and his Church? The popular anecdote about St. Francis of Assisi is that he preached the gospel, and when necessary, he used words. One of the biggest impediments to people accepting Catholicism is the apparent contradiction between what the Church teaches and how the members of the Church live their lives. I am as guilty of that as anybody, and on a personal level I find it deeply frustrating.

One of the things that I pray regularly is that I might not be a source of scandal – an obstacle to another person’s faith. Because whatever good things we might say with our lips, it only takes one moment of weakness for another to look at our bad behavior and say, “He makes me not want to be Catholic!”

Prayer Before Reading Scripture


Inspire us to read your Scriptures and to meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts.

Origen (ca. 185-254)

Monday, November 24, 2008

K of C Prayer for Vocations

Heavenly Father, bless Your Church with an abundance of holy and zealous priests, deacons, brothers and sisters.

Give those You have called to the married state and those You have chosen to live as single persons in the world the special graces that their lives require.

Form us all in the likeness of Your Son so that in Him, with Him and through Him we may love You more deeply and serve You more faithfully, always and everywhere. With Mary we ask this through Christ our Lord.


Vocation to Joy

Father Kyle Schnippel has posted his most recent column for the Catholic Telegraph, on the joy of a vocation to the priesthood, on his blog. I though about the subject of his column this evening.

Our parish has adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Monday until 9:00 pm. At 8:00, we pray the rosary, followed by prayers for vocations. We pray for priests, seminarians, and those called to the consecrated life.

Not everybody is called to a vocation as a priest. Some are called to live as married people, and some are called to live as single persons in the world. But all are called to holiness, and I think that all are called to joy. Those called to the priesthood undergo more discernment and make greater sacrifices. One would hope that they would have a more thorough spiritual formation. The rest of us need to take some time for discernment and formation, too.

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that we all received in baptism and confirmation. Priests, by virtue of their typically more thorough formation in Christ, are more likely to be filled with and radiate that joy. But the rest of us can and should find that joy as well, one that is, in Fr. Schnippel's words "not an effervescent bubbly joy that would sour quickly, but a deep sense of purpose. . . ." As a husband and a father, regardless of what other apostolates I might be involved in, God has given me a purpose. It is in the daily sacrifice of self to that purpose that joy is found.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Brother, My Captain, My King

The scene of the death of Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring comes to my mind every year on the occasion of the Feast of Christ the King. This is one of those rare instances where I think the film improved upon the book. Tolkien's account is brief:

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. "I tried to take the Ring from Frodo," he said. "I am sorry. I have paid." His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. "They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them." He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again.

"Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed."

"No!" said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. "You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!"

Boromir smiled.

"Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?" said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

In a moment of weakness, Boromir tried to seize the one power that he thought might save his people, although he had been warned of the folly of thinking that any man could control the power of the ring. He atoned for that failure by sacrificing himself, trying to defend Merry and Pippin, and summoning the rest of the fellowship. Aragorn recognized and respected Boromir's contrition. In the film, Aragorn's self identification with the people of Gondor, elicits the declaration of acceptance and loyalty from Boromir, who had previously regarded Aragorn as an outsider with an illegitimate claim to the throne of Gondor: "I would have followed you, my brother, my captain, my king!"

How often have I failed in weakness to temptation, thinking that I could control a power akin to the ring? Am I doing what I can to atone for those failures, defending my family from the assault of a toxic culture? Have I truly recognized Christ as my brother and King? I cannot help but admit that He deserves much more than I have given Him.

Sonnet to Our Lord on the Cross

I am not moved to lover you, O my God,
That I might hope in promised heaven to dwell;
Nor am I moved by fear of pain in hell
To turn from sin and follow where you trod.
You move me, Lord, broken beneath the rod,
Or stretched out on the cross, as nails compel
Your hand to twitch. It moves me that we sell,
To mockery and death, you precious blood.
It is, O Christ, your love which moves me so,
That my love rests not on promised prize;
Nor holy fear on threat of endless woe;
It is not milk and honey, but the flow
Of blood from blessed wounds before my eyes,
That waters my buried soul and makes it grow.

- Attributed to an Anonymous author
- Taken from Handbook of Prayers

Spilled Milk

Have you ever poured milk over your cold cereal, only to have it hit flakes on top and rebound completely out of the bowl and all over the counter. Man, I hate it when that happens.

It seems to happen to my son every time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Presentation of Mary

I was helping out at our local ConQuest boys' club meeting on Thursday, when I looked at the calendar and noted that today is the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary. I had heard of it before, but I didn't realize that there was actually a day set aside for it in the Church calendar. My prayer book says this:

This feast commemorates the dedication of the church of Saint Mary which was built in Jerusalem near the site of the Temple. With Christians of the East, the Latin Church also recalls on this day the tradition according to which Mary as a small child was presented to the Lord by her parents in the Temple.

I wasn't completely satisfied with this answer, so I checked the Catechism, Radio Replies, and Catholic Replies. Finally, I decided to just go to the original source, the Protoevangelium of James:

And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.
There's a reason that the Church didn't include this stuff in the canon of scripture. It might be interesting, but it's not reliable. And yet, the Church recognizes the memorial of the event, and she recognizes Sts. Anne and Joachim as the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have to assume that some of the content of this particular apocryphal book might be true, but that some of it is not. If I can't tell the difference, and it all sounds a little hokey, I think that it's best for me to stay away from it. I'm going to stick with the canonical books, which contain all of the public revelation necessary for my salvation.

Pie Jesu Domine

Just because it's Friday!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Spiritual Direction

When you read the lives of the saints, it seems that they all had spiritual directors. St. Francis de Sales, one of the most famous spiritual directors, councils Philothea on the necessity of having a spiritual director in order to live a devout life:

"And so I say to you, Philothea, if you desire heartily to follow a devout life, seek a holy guide and conductor. Seek where you will (so spoke the devout Avila), and you will never so safely find the will of God as in the path of humble obedience, so well trodden by all the Saints of old."

I am supposed to meet with a priest for spiritual direction tomorrow. I've never met him before, so I don't know what to expect. I haven't had a lot of luck with spiritual direction in the past. I've met with several priests once, but have never been able to develop a relationship whereby I was actually guided to growth in the spiritual life.

This is a little different than confession. When I go to confession, I receive a penance, such as four Our Fathers and four Hail Marys. But with spiritual direction, I'm trying to identify my root sins and devise a plan of action to develop the opposing virtue. It involves more of a commitment. (What am I saying, every time I recite the Act of Contrition during sacramental confession I "firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin." Isn't that a commitment? Yes, but it's a more ambiguous negative commitment to not do something. Spiritual direction involves a commitment to do something concrete on a regular, repeating basis.)

And good St. Francis de Sales is pretty serious about following the advice of the Spiritual Director:

"And when found, he should be to you as an Angel; do not regard him as an ordinary man, nor trust in him as such, nor in his human knowledge, but in God, who will Himself guide you through His appointed channel, prompting him to do and say that which you most require; therefore count him as an Angel come from heaven that he may conduct you thither."

Tomorrow will be a first meeting. A chance for me to discern whether this is the guide that God has sent for me. I sincerely hope that it is. I've been guiding myself for a long time, and it hasn't gotten me any closer to where I want to be. Just as a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer, so too the man who has himself for a guide is led by a fool.

What's In A Name?

"What's with Shadows of Augustine?" my wife wanted to know. "Where did you come up with that for a name?" I explained that I had, in fact, given quite a bit of thought to what I wanted to call my blog. The alternatives that I came up with were either pretentious or dorky. I couldn't even come up with anything that rose to the level of silly.

I settled on Shadows of Augustine for two reasons. First, Augustine is my favorite Church father. I once took an online quiz designed to identify the philosopher whose thought was the most similar to yours. I came out 99% Augustine and 99% Thomas Aquinas. Between the two of them, I find that Augustine has the more compelling biographical narrative.

The second obvious reason is that I belong to St. Augustine parish. I live within walking distance of the church, practically in the shadows of the twin steeples.

It made sense to me, and it satisfied my dear wife. Now any curious readers know too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conscience Under Assault

The International Herald Tribune carried a story, “Last-minute Bush abortion ruling causes furor,” yesterday about Bush Administration (Department of Health and Human Services) plans to put in place a conscience clause for health care workers at institutions that receive federal money. As I understand the IHT story, the rule would state that if a facility receives federal funds, it cannot discriminate against employees who refuse in conscience to participate in morally problematic procedures such as abortion and sterilization.

Note that the rule is not in place, it’s just been proposed, and is opposed by President-elect Obama, who will likely dismantle the rule once he takes office.

Why is this important to us as Catholics? Because the alternative is for Catholic healthcare workers to either violate their conscience by cooperating in acts that the Church teaches are immoral, or risk unemployment in their field. An example would be a pharmacist who objects to providing oral contraceptives based on their abortifacient effects. As it stands now, that pharmacist’s employer can give him the ultimatum to either dispense the pills (against his conscience) or be fired. I happen to think that the employer should be allowed to discriminate against his employees in how they service his patrons. So, I suppose that means that I would oppose the specific rule proposed by HHS.

However, there are broader implications at the employer level. If the owner of the pharmacy doesn’t want his pharmacy to dispense contraceptives, he should be free not to do that. If a physician or a gynecologist, in her practice, does not want to perform sterilizations, she should be free not to. It is at this level that the battle is being fought and needs to be won. The government will use the power of the purse to try to force providers to make the full range of “reproductive health” options available. So, if a Catholic hospital refuses to perform abortions or sterilizations, no government money (think Medicare and Medicaid) will be given to that hospital. So, if someone with a broken leg goes to the emergency room at a Catholic-run hospital, the hospital will still be required to treat the individual, but if the person is uninsured, the hospital won’t get any money, unless it has already compromised its Catholic identity. Under a scheme of universal health care, all medical payments will be tainted with government money, so Catholics will be forced out of healthcare completely (unless, that is, they’ve agreed to act as though they are not Catholic).

It’s not enough to refer a patient to another physician or facility who is willing to do the evil deed. That too, will land the conscientious Catholic in trouble with the courts.

This is why judges matter. I fear that the next four years will not be good for individual liberties.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Letters to the Churches

The weekday mass readings are starting into the Book of Revelation. This has got to be one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible, with televangelists reading all kinds of signs of the times into the apocalyptic imagery. I think that it's time to blow the dust off of my Scott Hahn tape set, The End, and give it another listen.

Yesterday, the church at Ephesus was told, "you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first." Today, the church in Sardis was told, "I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Be watchful and strengthen what is left, which is going to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember then how you accepted and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you." The church in Laodicea was told, "I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked."

I can't just look at others and say, "He's talking about you," because I know that he's talking about me.

Lord, help me, help us all, to recover the earnestness of fresh faith. You love us, and You are knocking at the door. I want to welcome You in, and dine with You. I want You to be Lord of my life. I plead for you to give me the strength to follow you, for I know that your grace is sufficient.

Patron of Veterinarians

My nephew is taking his veterinary boards today, and his mother (my sister) asked me to remember him in my prayers. Being the Catholic that I am, I had to look up the patron saint of veterinarians. I was expecting St. Francis, based on the annual blessing of animals on his feast day in October. Instead, I was surprised to learn that it is St. Eligius. Eligius was apparently a metal smith in the 7th century who became a bishop. How does a metal worker become patron saint of veterinarians? Eligius liked horses. When he died, he left one to a priest. The new bishop took the horse from the priest. The horse got sick. The horse was returned. The horse got better. So now, he is the patron of all veterinarians.

As for the boards, I don't just want to pray that Kyle passes. I am confident that he knows his stuff, so I pray that he will remain calm, and that God (and Eligius!) will facilitate his memory, that he may recall his training and studies appropriately.

St. Eligius, please pray for Kyle.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I Want My Global Warming Back!

Last year, I don't think we got any snow at all until January. I've gotten used to not getting snow until at least mid-December. Here it is, mid-November, and I have to fight my way through driving snow (not just flurries) to get to my car so I can maintain my carbon footprint.

I know that President-elect Obama promised to reverse global warming (among other amazing things), but I think I was kind of liking it.

People Get Ready

Jesus is comin' . . . .

Yeah, I listen to some Contemporary Christian music. Some of it is pretty good, some of it is pretty bad, and some just has a way of getting stuck in your head. Better that than the latest offering from Kid Rock.

That's not what I'm posting about, though. This past Sunday, we read from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians:

"But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."

The Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours featured a passage from the book of the prophet Joel concerning the last days and a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine. I really liked the way that Augustine put it:

"He will come whether we wish it or not. Do not think that because he is not coming just now, he will not come at all. He will come, you know not when; and provided he finds you prepared, your ignorance of the time of his coming will not be held against you."

I really like St. Augustine. The challenge for us is to live our lives as if the end could come tomorrow, while at the same time living as though our grandchildren will still be looking for the day of His coming. Is the eschaton imminent? Nobody knows. It shouldn't make a difference in how you live your life.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


In today's gospel, Jesus gives us the parable of the talents. I tend to take a dim personal view of this parable for two reasons. First, I don't see that I've produced any return on the talent that's been given to me. Second, I can't identify what my talents are in the first place. It's a dim view.

I end up trying to generate some kind of return on what I've been given, because I know that we are all called to the apostolate. We were told as much by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Apostolicam Actuositatem:

. . . the member who fails to make his proper contribution
to the development of the Church must be said to
be useful neither to the Church nor to himself.

So, I've tried different things. I've come to realize that I don't connect well with youth, even though I'm a high school catechist and an adult mentor for a program for boys aged 8 and up. My own kids have turned out pretty well so far, but I have to resist comparing them (and by extension, my own parenting) to other good kids, and every time I lose patience with them I am confronted with my own failure.

Again, I find myself turning to Him and crying, What do you want of me? If I complain that I don't have a silver tongue, I recall that Moses said the same thing. If I complain that I can't overcome my own sinfulness, I recall that St. Paul said much the same thing.

And so I keep stumbling along, hoping that my efforts do more good than harm.

Why Blog

What leads a person to create a blog? The short answer for me might be that my wife told me to.

But there's more to it than that. I really had to consider whether it was nothing more than an exercise in vanity. Am I blogging because I think that anybody out there wants to read what I write? I'm not (at least I hope) that self-centered.

It really comes down to two things. First, I'm hoping that it will foster a deeper prayer life and relationship with Christ. I might be able to get the same thing, or perhaps more so, from a private prayer journal. Indeed, I have to be careful in my blog posts not to get too personal.

My second reason for blogging is that, once upon a time, I considered myself a pretty decent writer. It's a talent that has been neglected, but I keep getting little inspirations that I think might be coming from the Holy Spirit that this (not blogging, but rather larger writing projects) is what God wants me to do. So, by blogging, I can throw samples of my writing out for public comment and hopefully hone my own thought processes and the path from my brain to the keyboard.

Maybe I'm deluding myself and it all is vanity, but I can do nothing but trust in God and hope that I'm travelling the road he has laid out for me.